Wheeler and the Jive-Talkers

The tidy, black girl didn’t look much older than 10. She was dressed in what looked like, at the time, the standard blue-and-white Catholic school uniform. She sat towards the front of a public transit bus as it made its way through Oakland, Calif. Given the late afternoon hours, she was probably headed home.

She kept her eyes straight ahead, while some localized chaos unfolded behind her.

There, four young black men verbally commandeered the bus – cursing, boasting, threatening, making sure everyone knew what they were capable of.

This was the 1980s, and I was a young white woman living in Oakland, taking the bus to retrieve my 1970 Toyota Corona at the repair shop. The guys on the bus reminded me of the young black man who had recently stopped me on the stairs of my apartment house. His loud music had kept me up the night before, and I committed the sin of glaring at him.

“No woman looks at me without talking,” he warned.

The young girl on the bus was probably already used to that kind of intimidation. She exhibited more self-possession than the guys sitting behind her. She was used to jive-asses and their jive-talking.

I thought about that young girl when Danielle Outlaw was named Portland’s new police chief.  Outlaw is a 41-year-old black woman and currently a deputy chief for the Oakland Police Department. One of the most striking biographical facts about her is that she started at the Oakland department as a teenage Police Explorer.

For a black adolescent to show interest in police work takes a certain fortitude. If you’re young, gifted, black – and interested in a police career – you’re setting yourself up for condemnation from other blacks. (And the Nina Simones are not likely to sing your praises.)

Reaction to Outlaw’s appointment as chief was predictable. At first, black activists and organizations like the Albina Ministerial Alliance were appeased and pleased: She’s black and that’s good. They had demanded that Mayor Ted Wheeler get rid of Chief Mike Marshman and even threatened to start a recall.

Then self-interest kicked in, and the anti-cop activists had second thoughts: She’s black, and it will be harder to pin a racist badge on her if she doesn’t do what we want.

Gregory McKelvey, black co-founder of a group called Portland Resistance whose protests have shut down city streets, told the Portland Mercury that he thought Outlaw’s introductory press conference “was pretty bad.”

The new chief said she wasn’t coming to Portland to “reform” the department: “I’m here to strengthen the good work that’s already been done,” she said.

That bothered McKelvey.

“She should be here to reform because our police desperately need reform,” he said.

If McKelvey wants to live in a city where the local police department needs reform, he should move to Oakland, the city Outlaw is leaving.

Last year, the Oakland Police Department went through three chiefs (Paul Figueroa, Ben Fairow and Sean Whent) in a nine-day period. Among the scandals were several officers having inappropriate relationships with a teenage sex worker and several other officers exchanging racist text messages (some officers were black).

The only similarity between Oakland and Portland is that both cities are under oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice. Even then, there is a huge difference. About six years ago, Portland’s former mayor, Sam Adams, invited federal scrutiny into the Portland Police Bureau’s handling of the mentally ill after a disturbed man died in police custody.

Oakland, on the other hand, has been under federal oversight for roughly 14 years. Like several American cities that are predominantly black, Oakland has a lot of crime. Where there’s crime, there is more interaction between police and suspects and, consequently, more complaints against the police.

Police monitoring is becoming a lucrative business.

“The industry has already perfected such fee-generating practices as billing eight hours to summarize a one-hour meeting,” said Heather Mac Donald in her book “The War on Cops,” published last year.

“Detroit’s federal monitor collected $120,000 to $193,000 a month for her services, for a cool $13 million, which the city has tried to recover after discovering that she consorted with the mayor during her tenure as monitor. … Oakland’s federal monitor pulled in nearly $2 million for two years overseeing the financially strapped department, which now allocates 18 officers for internal affairs investigations but only 11 for homicides.”

Portland opted for both a paid monitor and an unpaid citizen group called the Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB) made up of 15 members representing various identity groups.

Ironically, COAB fell apart when organized malcontents – some of them claiming mental illness – continually disrupted the meetings. The paid monitor is still in place, a sore subject for some police reformers.

Jo Ann Hardesty, a black woman and president of the local chapter of the NAACP told Mayor Wheeler two weeks ago at a Portland City Council meeting, “No one is talking about the overpaid Chicago consultant that is still getting a salary.”

Hardesty herself bid on that police-monitoring contract and lost to the Chicago firm of Rosenbaum & Watson.

Mayor Wheeler is now proposing a new community group to provide police oversight that would meet in public only occasionally, apparently to avoid being taken over by the same demanding gaggle that destroyed the previous board.

Some of the police reformers who shut down COAB have been attending City Council meetings to denounce Wheeler’s attempt to exclude them. It wouldn’t be surprising if the mayor capitulates. He is a narrow, colorless man who seems to shrink a little bit more with each council meeting.

The scion of a white, wealthy timber family (back when Oregon had a timber industry), Wheeler bested 19 candidates for mayor last year by running as the progressive adult in a field of progressive flakes. Almost immediately, his City Council meetings began to resemble the COAB meetings.

Is it his whiteness or his wealth that paralyzed him? Wheeler can’t divest himself of his skin color, but he could unload his wealth. (Teressa Raiford is the latest police reformer to sue the city of Portland — in her case, for $500,000. Maybe Wheeler could just write her a check on his personal account.)

The mayor has regained some control but only because he’s been so accommodating. When he opened up the police chief position to a national search, Wheeler emphasized Oregon’s history of racism in the job posting.

Portland’s police reformers love citing the state’s racism as if it were something unique. They often reach back to 1857 when Oregon, then a federal territory, banned blacks. This act of discrimination served a dual purpose the reformers don’t acknowledge: It also banned slavery and slave owners.

Wheeler almost seems eager for a bad officer-involved shooting so he can prove himself to be the hero of police reformers.

Although Portland police officers wanted Marshman to remain chief, they’re eager to give Outlaw a chance. The officers I spoke with think she will be surprised to discover there aren’t that many problems in the Portland Police Bureau. One problem that hasn’t received much attention – and is a concern in other urban departments – is the “Ferguson effect.”

This is the tendency of police officers to be less proactive. They respond to 911 calls but tend to avoid self-initiated enforcement of quality-of-life violations or traffic and pedestrian stops that could lead to trouble if someone complains.

The “Ferguson effect” is a legitimate concern in Portland given the many layers of police oversight that already exist. At the city government level, there’s the Independent Police Review agency, the Citizen Review Committee, the Police Review Board and the police bureau’s own Internal Affairs Department. Private citizen groups include the long-time Portland CopWatch and the less-reputable Police911.

At any given time, somewhere in Portland somebody can be photographing a Portland police officer.

The complaints against officers that I’ve witnessed at the Citizen Review Committee included criticism of a cop who used profanity, another who called a speeding motorcyclist “stupid,” and an officer who told a defense attorney she wasn’t very good.

This is what Police Chief Danielle Outlaw is walking into. A collection of jive-talking reformers who hate cops, have their own agendas and claim to represent “the community.”

When they appear at council meetings, the new chief will have to remind herself that they don’t comprise even one-tenth of one percent of the city’s population.

Outlaw, a supporter of community policing, might be in a good position to ask: What is the community’s responsibility to help community policing succeed? Officers can’t do it by themselves – particularly when there’s one slice of the community that likes to spit every time they see a patrol car.

Wheeler hasn’t made it any easier by giving cop-hating police reformers a prominent seat at the table.

There is also Portland’s strange form of government that lets city council commissioners – politicians – run various bureaus instead of experienced professionals. Wheeler, for example, is the self-proclaimed Police Commissioner.

He has less experience in police work than a teenage Police Explorer from Oakland.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

From the Archives:

Blue Hours and Alien Boys

Held Hostage by the Mentally Ill

Oh Darn, Please Drop the Gun

4 Comments

  • I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that cities assemble advisory and disciplinary boards for police and include members that are openly antagonistic towards police and the entire concept of policing. I liken it to Planned Parenthood inviting the director of National Right to Life into a committee on how to better provide reproductive health care.

    If the powers that be want to assemble a public safety/criminal justice committee to explore concepts to move towards, sure, some folks that think we should disarm (or not even have) police should have a seat at the table, but when it comes to real cops and the real world, I cannot fathom why someone who thinks Keaton Otis was murdered by police is allowed in the room much less courted for their opinion.

    Our politicians need to recognize that no police chief will ever satisfy these people unless he or she first figures out a way to make the police do a job other than what we pay police to do.

  • I like your Planned Parenthood analogy.

    There is probably no group of professionals that has as much citizen oversight as police. In the list of agencies/committees/citizen groups I cited, I didn’t include attorneys who specialize in suing police. That’s another oversight tool available to people who think they have been wronged.

    What’s really missing from these government oversight groups, and I’ve mentioned this before, are folks who are likely to call the police for help — shopkeepers, bartenders, food cart operators and others who have to deal with the general public. Real cops in the real world, as you point out.

  • Thanks for the information about the extended purpose of the “no blacks” law.

    I’ve always been ashamed of it yet never troubled myself to reconcile its existence with the offer of the governorship to Lincoln and our entry into the Union as a Free state.

    It doesn’t let Oregon off the hook, but it mitigates the matter somewhat.

    Again, I refer to Heather McDonald’s book on policing, including its discussion of the “The Ferguson Effect.”

    I have to say I’m enjoying Sheryl Attkisson’s latest book, too. She is especially interesting on gaming the FOIA.

    I’m also finding Judith Miller’s book worth the bother, but I do not think McDermott of the Times would agree.

    My latter point is concerned with the collapse of American journalism and the intellectual cowardice and overall shabbiness of society’s most influential groups: the press, the schools, and politicians.

    I don’t imagine Outlaw stands a chance but was pleased to read that you knew local police who wished her well.

  • Salem reader wrote:

    I don’t know what’s happened to Ted Wheeler. Your description of him as shrinking is putting it politely. He better retire his ambitions for governor. Most Oregonians don’t think cops are Public Enemy Number 1. Some parts of this state are lucky to have police.

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