Two cities, a spike in crime, and the federal response

A city’s tensions erupted into a national spectacle last month when federal tactical teams appeared on the streets of Portland, Oregon. Heavily armed officers clad in camouflage uniforms targeted demonstrators with tear gas, batons, and less lethal munitions, a show of force countered by the “wall of moms” and “leaf-blower dads.” President Donald Trump, a Republican, blamed the upheaval on “anarchists and agitators” as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, faulted the “Trump troops.”

The spectacle subsided late last week. The tactical teams ceded the duty of guarding a federal courthouse downtown to state police under an agreement between Governor Brown and Trump administration officials. Meanwhile, the city’s tensions persist, with community frustration toward the Portland Police Bureau – sparked after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on Memorial Day – intensifying during July’s unrest.

Videos captured police working alongside federal officers to disrupt protests near the courthouse. If the scenes provoked surprise among white residents, who make up more than 70% of the city’s population of 655,000, Lakayana Drury suggests that people of color saw the Portland police they long have known.

“If you’re white, the three blocks around the courthouse have been a war zone. If you’re Black, the whole city is a war zone,” says Mr. Drury, executive director of Word is Bond, a nonprofit that seeks to cultivate rapport between young Black men and law enforcement. The apparent coordination with federal authorities “hurts the ability of police to build trust,” he adds. “It takes away from the reputation of officers who do good community work.”

Some 2,100 miles away in Chicago, Vaughn Bryant echoes Mr. Drury’s concern about the impact of federal agents on local policing. The country’s third-largest city had recorded 440 homicides through July, 150 more than at the same point last year, and the president has dispatched federal officers to assist Chicago police.

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“Given the homicide numbers, something has to be done,” says Mr. Bryant, executive director of Communities Partnering 4 Peace, an alliance of organizations devoted to reducing gun and gang violence. “But people are worried about federal agents casting a wider net and overreaching.”

Mr. Trump announced plans last month to send hundreds of federal law enforcement personnel to Chicago, Detroit, and several other cities run by “liberal Democrats” whom he accuses of failing to corral violent crime.

Democrats deride the president’s self-proclaimed “law and order” campaign as an attempt to boost his reelection chances against Democratic rival Joe Biden. A half-dozen mayors, including those in Portland, Chicago, and Seattle, petitioned Congress last week to pass legislation to limit the administration’s authority to deploy federal officers to their cities.

Anti-violence advocates in Portland and Chicago contend that Mr. Trump’s moves have diverted attention from redressing deep-rooted problems in cities – police brutality, racial injustice, social inequality – that inspired protests nationwide following Mr. Floyd’s death. At the same time, the actions of federal agents threaten to widen the rift between residents and local officers, explains Dave Franco, a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department who retired in January.

“Federal agents are not part of the community,” he says. “And if they’re not following local strategy and they’re using aggressive tactics, that’s going to make it even harder for the police to build relationships with the community.”

Tear gas and verbal salvos

Word is Bond brings together Black men ages 16 to 21 with officers from the Portland police force and other area law enforcement agencies to unravel misperceptions and nurture mutual understanding. Mr. Drury recruits white officers to participate owing to the wariness of people of color toward police.

An estimated 65% to 70% of officers nationwide are white, and police kill minorities at disproportionate rates compared with white men and women. Some 80% of Portland’s 525 officers are white, and the bureau has absorbed backlash for a series of fatal police shootings of Black residents and for higher rates of searching and arresting Black motorists and pedestrians.

Mr. Drury, who is biracial, condemns police for aiding tactical teams with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during protests. But he levels his strongest criticism at successive police and city administrations for a lack of police reform that contrasts with Portland’s progressive image.

“The behavior of federal forces is no more egregious than what Portland cops have done to the Black community for decades,” he says. “The city had the opportunity for years to respond to community demands. They didn’t, and then federal agents came here and escalated the situation. That’s taken away from the message of Black Lives Matter.”

As federal agents and police fired tear gas at protesters last month, city officials traded verbal salvos with Daryl Turner, the outspoken president of the Portland Police Association, the union that represents the rank and file. City Council members denounced his decision to meet with the DHS acting secretary when he visited Portland, and they later banned police from cooperating with federal agents.

The union’s executive board issued a vote of “no confidence” in the council, and Mr. Turner, flanked by faith leaders and business owners during a press conference, described the city as “under siege by rioters” and claimed elected officials “condoned the destruction.” Neither he nor Police Chief Chuck Lovell joined Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city leaders in demanding that federal agents withdraw.

The police association has outlined a plan for reform that advocates a return to community policing, changes to recruitment and training, and pairing officers with social workers to handle crisis calls. The proposal appears on the union’s website beneath the words “You can’t have police reform without police funding” – a retort of sorts to the council voting in June to redirect $15 million of the bureau’s $244 million budget to other city agencies and programs.

“For policing to evolve, you have to listen to the community,” says Mr. Turner, a 29-year member of the Portland force. “We want to build that relationship, and city officials aren’t helping.”

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who in 2018 became the first Black woman elected to the City Council, began pushing for changes to policing three decades ago. She asserts that Portland officers engaging in “unfettered, state-sanctioned violence” yielded two related results.

“The actions of federal agents and our own police force have further fractured community trust,” she says. “They have made the public’s case for reform stronger.”

“Policing requires cooperation”

Violence has exploded in Chicago this summer. Police recorded 105 homicides in July, the most in a single month since 1992, and more than twice the total during the same month last year. Shootings rose to 584 from 308 last July, with 17 people killed and another 70 wounded over the July Fourth weekend.

Police Superintendent David Brown, who has ascribed the rise in bloodshed to gang turf wars, intends to form a rapid-response unit that will combine suppression tactics with community policing efforts to curb outbreaks of violence. He told reporters that Mr. Trump’s plan to send 200 agents from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies “will enhance our ability to hold our criminals accountable.”

Mr. Bryant, with Communities Partnering 4 Peace, has heard concerns from residents about a possible replay of Portland, where federal officers in unmarked vehicles pulled people off the streets.

“Everyone wants perpetrators of violent crime to be caught. But what people saw in Portland wasn’t about violent crime,” says Mr. Bryant, who grew up the son of a police officer in Detroit. Communities Partnering 4 Peace, a coalition of more than a dozen organizations, mediates gang disputes, recruits former gang members to serve as nonviolence ambassadors, and works with police to reduce shootings and promote youth initiatives.

“We can’t arrest our way out of our problems,” he says. “Crime is a symptom of the root causes of racial inequity, and any federal action should be corrective action to address the systemic racism that has been inflicted on the community.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot explained to reporters last week that the incoming federal officers will support ongoing operations of their agencies in Chicago. She has vowed to pursue litigation if tactical teams show up on city streets.

The mayor has clashed with John Catanzara, head of the Chicago police union, who wrote an open letter to the president appealing for federal assistance to tame the city’s “chaos” that he blamed on “failing liberal policies.” Elected to the top post in May, Mr. Catanzara has accrued 50 misconduct complaints since joining the force in 1995, and the department has suspended his police powers as he faces an internal affairs investigation that began in 2018.

In the view of Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, overt alliances between police unions and federal agents hold potential risks amid a national reckoning on race. “By aligning with federal forces, unions are going to deepen the divide between police and communities,” he says. “They’re harming their own departments with that choice.”

Local and federal officials in Chicago announced the arrests last week of the reputed head of the Black Disciples street gang and more than 20 associates following a multiyear investigation.

Mr. Franco, the retired Chicago cop, offers the case as an example of collaboration that benefits authorities and residents alike. His three-decade career with the department included several years in the community policing unit and joint investigations with federal officers on gun trafficking, narcotics, and gang cases.

“Policing requires cooperation, and not just between law enforcement people,” he says. “You need the community’s cooperation. You can’t really help people if they see your uniform and think you’re the enemy.”

Shared responsibility

Norm Stamper retired as Seattle’s police chief in 2000 after 34 years in uniform. His career had imploded beneath criticism and controversy a year earlier, after he ordered officers to fire tear gas at demonstrators during massive protests against the World Trade Organization.

He has performed a self-imposed penance in the ensuing years, emerging as a leading advocate for police reform, and in the groundswell of outrage over George Floyd’s death, he finds hope for sweeping change.

“I’ve never been more optimistic. This is the first time in my life that I’ve come to believe that a genuine community-police partnership is possible,” says Mr. Stamper, author of the 2016 book, “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police.” He attributes his outlook to the sudden and sustained pressure that protests have exerted on police unions and administrators to listen to their communities.

“There can be no more of the ‘We’re the police and you’re not’ attitude,” he says. “There can be no more unilateral decision-making and crisis management by the police.”

The city of Portland accepted a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014 after a federal investigation identified a pattern of officers using excessive force against people diagnosed with mental illness. Federal attorneys announced in January that the police bureau has shown “substantial compliance” with 190 required reforms.

Commissioner Hardesty, a former president of Portland’s NAACP chapter, wants the city to enact future police reforms without the specter of litigation or tear gas. She has called for diverting more funding from the police to crisis responders and social services and creating a new system of civilian oversight for the bureau.

“We can repair the relationship with the community by listening to the demands of the community,” she says.

Portland police reported 15 homicides across the city in July, the highest monthly total in more than 30 years, and one month after the City Council voted to disband the bureau’s 34-member gun reduction violence team. Reform advocates regard the spike as evidence that police remain essential to public safety even as the city explores alternatives.

“Police have responsibilities placed upon them that are unreasonable and that reflect our failures as a society,” Commissioner Chloe Eudaly says. “We have shared responsibility – not just the council and the police, but the public.”

The Chicago Police Department entered into a federal consent decree last year after Justice Department investigators found a pattern of officers using excessive force, a lack of internal accountability, and inadequate training and supervision. The department has missed 70% of the initial deadlines for dozens of reforms laid out in the agreement.

Mr. Bryant grew up playing football for police officers moonlighting as coaches, and he works closely with cops to stanch violence in neighborhoods. He relates to them as individuals, as more than a gun and a badge, and he senses a historic opportunity for police to become part of the community, to no longer stand apart from those they serve.

“There’s no doubt the department has its problems,” he says. “But people see there’s still definitely a need for police, that they have a rightful place. It’s a matter of collaborating.”


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