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Two determined women face off over alleged racial profiling in Forest Grove

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - When Vanessa Savage heard how a police officer reached for his gun during a pedestrian stop of her cousin, she got scared. Then she got active, holding this sign outside Forest Groves community auditorium as people gathered for the Annual Town Meeting in January.Late one night this past January, “Jordan,” a 34-year-old black man, headed home from his fast-food job in Hillsboro. He got off the TriMet bus in Forest Grove and began the long walk along Goff Road, his shortest route home.

A police car rolled up and the cop got out and asked for Jordan’s ID. As Jordan reached to get his wallet out of his back pocket, he says, he saw the officer’s hand go to his gun.

So many other times in Portland and across the country, this scenario has played out horribly wrong, particularly when it involves white police officers and black or Latino citizens.

In this case, the two men worked it out.

“I’m from the South, and I’m used to a lot worse than that,” Jordan says now. “That cop was just doing his job.”

Still, he was unnerved enough to relate the incident to his cousin, Vanessa Savage, who was letting him live at her Forest Grove home for a while.

For Savage, it was one more incident added to an ever-lengthening list of traffic and pedestrian stops that she and various black relatives and friends have endured in Forest Grove since her family moved to town in 2008.

It was also the last straw. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Savage also sent an angry fax to Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz, who immediately invited her to sit down and talk about the problem -- something Savage has not done. Schutz vows to root out any such discrimination while insisting she sees no evidence of it among her officers.

Savage sent messages to Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz by fax and Facebook, asking to talk about racial profiling.

“We understand from all the statistics and the media that encounters with the police can quickly turn fatal for black people,” she wrote. “Why is your police department initiating unwarranted encounters with black people?”

Schutz called Savage the day she got the fax, Jan. 28, and asked her for dates, locations and names of the officers involved.

But when the incidents started, Savage says, she hadn’t thought to document those details. They’re just black folks’ lot in life, she’d thought. She didn’t know there would be so many stops over the years — around 50, she firmly asserts — of herself, family and friends. Didn’t know she’d eventually be driven to go public. Didn’t know there’d be a young man named Trayvon and that towns such as Ferguson and North Charleston and Baltimore would come to dominate the news.

Still, Savage maintains that she and her family could identify by sight several officers who have harassed them over the years, including a blond female cop who has particularly bedeviled them. (Oddly enough, the five women on the force are all blond.) But she hasn’t followed up on that with Schutz.

During the phone call, Schutz invited Savage to a sit-down.

“That’s how you solve problems in this country,” says Schutz, whose training and inclination argue for a face-to-face given the sensitive issues at hand. She believes in her ability to look someone in the eye and communicate her personal ethos that “Everybody’s somebody.”

But Savage isn’t particularly interested in a meeting. Or at least not one behind closed doors. She feels the route to traction on the issue is a community forum replete with allies who have also been racially profiled. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - State Rep. Susan McLain (D-Hillsboro) stops to talk to Vanessa Savage, one of her English students -- and debate team stars -- from 30 years back when McLain was a teacher and debate coach at Glencoe High School.

“I reached out to her, and her response was to have her head in the sand,” she said of the chief, referring to the fact that in their one phone call, Schutz didn’t acknowledge the racial profiling Savage says she sees so clearly.

Three days after that call, on Jan. 31, Savage stood in front of the Forest Grove Community Auditorium as roughly 100 people streamed in for the Annual Town Meeting. She held a sign for all to see: “Forest Grove Police: Stop Racial Profiling. Black Lives Matter.”

‘There’s bias on both sides’

Of the 21,083 people living in Forest Grove in 2010, United States Census workers recorded 164 African-Americans — a whopping 0.8 percent. Adding those of mixed race brought the number up to 272, or 1.3 percent. Whites (not mixed with another race) clocked in at 78.8 percent, with Latinos making up most of the rest.

There have never been many black people in this area, even back in the Roaring ‘20s, when western Washington County was a hub of Ku Klux Klan activity, according to local historian Ken Bilderback.

In 1923, KKK members held their statewide convention and burned a 70-foot cross in the Hillside area just north of Forest Grove.

Back then, Oregon’s constitution officially banned African-Americans from the state — the only such law in the country, it was repealed in 1926 — so the Klan instead targeted Catholics, Japanese immigrants, Jews and anyone else who wasn’t a white, capitalist Protestant.

Nearly a century later, Forest Grove has become a much more progressive city. Yet racism still rears its head.

Back in 2008, a white Pacific University professor, Mike Steele, was carrying a pro-Obama lawn sign out of the campaign office on Pacific Avenue when a car load of young white men whizzed past him and one yelled, “If it ain’t white, it ain’t right!”

Jordan reports he’s had the ‘N-word’ hurled at him several times from passing cars in Forest Grove.

“Only cowards yell out car windows at people,” he said, adding that it would concern him only if the people stopped the car and got out.

“Shandre” — let’s call him — another of Savage’s relatives, says he faced just that in October 2014, when he was walking home along Goff Road, vaguely aware of a white woman walking up ahead of him on the other side.

“She speeds up a little, and then I cross to her side ‘cause that’s the way to my house,” he said. “And then she gets on her phone.”

Within minutes a pickup truck pulled up with four guys inside, the 22-year-old said. Two got out — the second with a baseball bat. The lead guy rushed up, yelled something about not “messing with his little sister” and threw a punch, said Shandre, who is both a Scrabble whiz prone to old-fashioned exclamations such as “Oh my gosh,” and a wiry, 6-foot-tall athlete who’s been an accomplished fighter since his early teens.

Shandre says he beat the first guy down with several swift blows to the face and head. The second ran up and swung the bat but missed, leaving himself open on the follow-through. Shandre tackled him and grabbed the bat away.

“And I’m going crazy and running toward them” and they took off in the truck, Shandre said. He later told the story to two friends who corroborated his account.

When he first moved to Forest Grove as a 14-year-old freshman, Shandre said, some upperclassmen used to mess with him, taunting, “move out of the way, black kid.” He’d end up punching someone, he said, and was often in trouble during his one year at Forest Grove High School.

Most incidents that appear to be racially motivated are more insulting than dangerous. Michael Tyner, a biracial Pacific University student, for example, remembers walking down a Forest Grove sidewalk one day when a middle-aged white guy yelled at him to stay off his property and away from his house.

It bothered Tyner, but it was the only time any townspeople ever gave him trouble during his four years here.

Interviewed by a Pacific journalism student this spring, other African-American students gave similar accounts. Sometimes they picked up odd vibes from white residents in town, but never had a serious issue with them or the local police.

And eight years after Shandre’s bad experiences at the high school, three of its current African-American students report no problems related to race.

“I consider it a relative non-factor,” said Murimi Nyamu, a junior. “Anything that does come with race I don’t think is at all negative. If anything, it marks me as an individual, allows me to be more memorable.”

Two other black students, Charles and Esther Johnson — a freshman and junior, respectively — both said they have had no racial harassment or problems at either the high school or around town.

But an inflammatory Tweet from a FGHS student just last week — comparing black protestors in Baltimore to monkeys — shows that racism against African-Americans hasn’t completely disappeared from the school.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Police Chief Janie Schutz chats with a mom and daughter at the most recent Coffee with a Cop, a quarterly community-outreach event she started a year ago. Schutz and other officers converge on a different restaurant each time, springing for coffee and making themselves accessible to anyone who wants to bring up concerns -- or compliments -- related to Forest Grove or the police department.

At the other end of the age spectrum, 83-year-old Hannah Hurdle-Toomey said she feels African-Americans are worse off now than they were 10 years ago. Hurdle-Toomey, one of the last living children of Civil War-era slaves (her father was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation), spoke of the emotional — and sometimes physical — toll of racial injustice: “We can’t just keep choking it up, holding it in.”

A 71-year-old African-American woman who doesn’t want her name used said she’s had no real problems in the 10 years she’s lived in Forest Grove, other than when she moved to a particular community last year. That apparently set off a series of “What is she doing here?” phone calls between her new neighbors and the complex manager.

Despite her feeling of relative security here, the woman said she’s still wary of police officers.

“I get my back up when a cop approaches,” she said. “You have to be precautionary. There are cultural differences. Something will happen unless there’s great communication there and you watch your body language. There’s bias on both sides.”

WWB: Walking While Black

If you’re a black man in Forest Grove, a late-night walk along Goff Road isn’t just the route to Savage’s house — it’s often the route to a police officer’s flashlight beam in the face.

So says Savage. With three teenagers in her home in years past, plus their friends visiting from Hillsboro and relatives returning late from their jobs, the pedestrian stops seem to be on automatic replay, she said, perhaps in part because Goff Road runs through Pacific Crossing, one of Forest Grove’s ritziest developments, where new homes start in the upper $300,000s and shoot up to more than half-a-million.

Shandre spoke of “the cops pulling up on me and asking how I’m doing. They shine a flashlight in my face and then ask if I’ve got anything” — i.e., drugs.

They always want to look in his backpack, he said, but he has researched his rights and refuses. One time an officer grabbed his backpack anyway under the pretext of looking for ID, he said.

Anthony Washington, another black Forest Grove resident, said he was stopped by an officer around 10:30 one night when he was out walking his pit bull near Goff and Willamina Avenue. The officer asked if he lived around there.

“So I told him where I live, and he kept going,” Washington said. “But he doubled back to check on me.”

Tyner reports one racially tinged incident that involved a Forest Grove police officer. Tyner and a white friend were walking home late one night near Lincoln Park when a police car charged up onto the sidewalk, he said, scaring the bejeezus out of them.

“The cop only talked to me. Not a word to him,” Tyner said of his white friend. What’s more, the officer “told me to take my hood off and make eye contact with him. It was 20 degrees out. I had a hood on.”

The officer then said they could be arrested for walking through the park at night and left.

In some cases, police might simply be responding to calls from residents who are doing their own racial profiling.

“That’s what makes the job so difficult post-Ferguson,” said Forest Grove Police Capt. Mike Herb, spokesman for the department. “Even if you’re responding to a call, you can be accused of singling someone out by race.”

Savage thinks a call is what happened three or four years ago, when two young black men showed up at her front door one morning to get their hair cut by her daughter, a trained barber who makes cash cutting hair. With her room at the back of the house, the daughter apparently didn’t hear them right away.

“The neighbors must have called the cops on two black men knocking at a door,” said Savage, whose daughter told her a month later that police had arrived and arrested the men, although they were soon released. Savage inquired at the FGPD, but the department has no record of it.

Asked if the police are racist, Savage said of course you can’t categorize any one group of people like that. “But they are on a mission to make sure that blacks know they are not welcome in Forest Grove. That you’re being watched and better not step out of line. It’s a lot of stress.” COURTESY PHOTO: JANIE SCHUTZ - On a hot summer day in Wadesboro, N.C., then-Police Chief Janie Schutz bought 30 squirt guns and brought them to children in a housing project. In Wadesboro, where the leaders were white but the population was 60 percent black, Schutz was drawn to the projects, populated primarily by impoverished African-American families. I was probably the first chief the people in Wadesboros projects ever saw daily, she said. They did not expect a white woman in a southern town to be interested in them.

The chief wants to talk

Though her only prior top-cop job was in small-town North Carolina, Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz is as far from a good old boy, gut-hanging-over-her-gun-belt stereotype as possible. For one thing, she’s something of a deep thinker about policing and its role in the world.

Her views were solidified in the cauldron of racially charged Wadesboro, N.C. Matters became fraught following a drug- and gang-related murder that Schutz aggressively investigated. But she chose to ignore the county’s district attorney when he phoned late one night warning her to get out of Dodge quick or forfeit her life. She ended up sleeping with her gun by her bed and the police radio on all night. (“You get used to it.”) Because if the top cop lets herself get run out of town, what hope is there for any of the folks she’s trying to serve and protect?

In Forest Grove, Schutz now faces a different challenge. Savage’s letter warned: “If you are not willing to eradicate racial profiling at your level, then this city will be the next city gaining national attention for racially profiling its black citizens.”

“Not being a smart-aleck here, but bring it on,” said Schutz, who requires all her officers to read and sign an anti-profiling policy guidebook from a private training company, Lexipol, and has sent some to “sensitivity training” that includes the topic of racial profiling.

“I’ve looked into it in my department, and I’m not seeing it,” she said.

Nonetheless, in direct response to Savage’s complaint, Schutz directed her department to add racial data to its records of interaction with the public. That began Feb. 1, four days after her phone call with Savage.

From then to March 25, Schutz reports, the FGPD conducted 586 traffic stops. Of those, 364 drivers (62 percent) were white — 17 percentage points lower than the white population in 2010; 106 (18 percent) were Latino; 15 were Asian; 12 were African-American (about 2 percent); 8 were “Other” and 81 were “Unknown.” That last category reflects the fact that officers aren’t allowed to ask people’s race if it’s unclear.

As for pedestrian stops on Goff Road, FGPD records show five such stops between January 2013 and late March 2015, three of them after midnight — all before the department started collecting racial data.

Any time an officer stops and gets out of his or her car to contact someone, they must record it either on a computer or via radio, said Herb. Even if officers failed to do that, their whereabouts are continually documented through AVL (Automatic Vehicle Locator) and could be confirmed if the department received a complaint that included a time and place.

Last week, the department started experimenting with body cameras, which could help further document police stops.

Given the general prevalence of car break-ins throughout the city, it’s appropriate to stop people late at night and attempt to get ID, said Schutz, although pedestrians in Oregon are not required to show identification to police.

Added Sgt. Mike Hall: “It keeps cops occupied. Cops looking for things show us that they’re working.”

During that same 2013 to 2015 time period, Schutz said, law enforcement officers have been dispatched to Savage’s address a total of 13 times. Of those, four were FGPD officers attempting to serve a warrant. A fifth FGPD officer responded to another issue. The others were Washington County Sheriff’s Office deputies.

In fact, said Sgt. Bob Ray of WCSO, deputies have gone to Savage’s home 11 times since January 2011. Three were attempts to serve warrants, five were attempts to serve court papers and three were follow-ups to other calls. No contact was ever achieved.

Vowing to unearth any racial issues, Schutz urges any Forest Grove resident with problems or disagreements of any sort to file a complaint, whether on the FGPD website or by calling dispatch or writing a letter.

“I’m nosy,” she said. “I read everything from the traffic stops on up” generated by her 29 sworn officers, 27 of whom are white, with two Hispanic and none black.

Schutz, who participated in a Pacific University-sponsored forum on “racism and law enforcement” last August, acknowledges racial bias is a challenge. “Racism is alive and well in the United States, and the only way I know to deal with it is to confront it.”

The chief grants people their own viewpoints, but said they should be challenged as to why they hold them. Should Savage protest any further, Schutz will be out in front of her department in uniform with her head high to engage in conversation with anyone who wishes, she said.

It’s not that she thinks every officer is perfect.

“Is every cop of the character they should be?” she asks, then answers: “Ten percent of cops, there’s questions about them, from shirking their duty on up.” 

That 10 percent figure could apply to almost any profession, she added.

“We’re asked to do a job with super-human perfection. It’s an impossibility,” said the chief, who struggles with the idea of holding officers to a higher standard. “We’re fallible too,” she said. “If a cop is the best he can be 11 months out of the year, and then there’s that one mistake — do you judge him solely on that?”

With police killings of black men dominating the news nationwide, the answer may depend on how fatal the mistake proves to be.

Strong ‘spirit of justice’

State Rep. Susan McLain (D-Hillsboro) was a little taken aback to see Savage at the town meeting in January — not because of her provocative sign (“I appreciate her willingness to put herself on the line for an issue that needs to be looked at,” McLain said. “I don’t think that’s easy in Forest Grove”), but because it took a moment for this former Glencoe High School teacher and debate coach to recognize Savage as her student from 30 years back.

McLain noted that Savage was selected by her classmates and the faculty to give a formal speech, the “charge” to Glencoe’s class of 1985.

“Vanessa always had a strong spirit of justice as a student,” she said.

Savage attended the University of Oregon for nearly four years before dropping out, pregnant and broke, to take a job with the Internal Revenue Service. 

Kevin Savage, who’s white, has been married to Vanessa for eight years. He backs her to the hilt in his quiet, wry way, endorsing her statements and allegations without exception, noting that he, too, has gotten more traffic stops since he started driving with his black relatives in his car.

Backing down hasn’t been part of Savage’s makeup since moving to Hillsboro in the fifth grade only to be attacked, she says, by a fellow student at West Union Elementary School, swinging a chair at the sight of his first black classmate.

When Shandre came home one day and told her about being pulled over in Forest Grove for blasting his music, Savage hopped in the car herself, cranked the volume as loud as she could stand and circled the block where the officer was parked. But she never got pulled over, she said, speculating that it was because she’s an older African-American woman, not a young black man.  NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Goff Road runs through Pacific Crossing, one of Forest Groves most upscale developments. Its also where members of Vanessa Savages family say they get stopped by police when theyre walking home from the bus stop.

Savage obviously does not shrink from affront, including what appeared to be the stark insult of finding a noose hanging at her job site in December 2013. Attached to a note which included the word “terminated,” the noose was fastened to the outer wall of another African-American’s cubicle at the Washington County Department of Housing Services. A colleague took a photo, and don’t-back-down Savage was the one to send it to television station KPTV and then take to the airwaves to calmly express her apprehension over what she termed a “hostile” work environment.

Though the Federal Bureau of Investigation looked into the incident, Washington County officials termed it something akin to an innocent prank among co-workers and dismissed it as not “racially motivated.” The county declared there was no pattern of noose-hanging, and ordered sensitivity training.

Erious Johnson Jr. is currently an Oregon assistant attorney general and the state Department of Justice’s civil rights director. But while still in private practice, he met with Savage, her husband and her children three times in early 2014 to discuss suing over the noose. He found her credible and sympathetic. Then the state job came knocking, and he had to drop the potential case.

Rueful about race relations in general, Savage said, “I’ve been in this brown skin all my life.” Saying there’s no way white people can truly understand black folks’ burden of everyday racism, she added, “You get it everywhere — your job, at school and in your community.”

Told of such sentiments, Schutz said, “I’m well aware I haven’t lived her life. But I don’t want to be blamed for that.” Citing her own struggles striving to succeed in a male-dominated profession, she added, “Any human being has had their challenges.”

And now one challenge on Schutz’s plate is a smart, focused, self-possessed woman exhausted by a lifetime of living in her own skin — and dissatisfied with the chief’s response to what she insists is racial profiling. Savage wants a public forum, a staged confrontation to soothe — maybe — the demons from 40 years inhabiting her “brown skin” in a largely white county. But she didn’t tell Schutz about this idea, nor has she offered any plan to make it happen.

So despite what Schutz says is a clear conscience on the matter, she is somewhat at a loss. She’s open to a public forum and even broached the News-Times about facilitating some sort of meeting. Beyond that, all she can do is offer coffee and a chair, wherever and whenever Savage cares to respond.

Editor’s Note: Three people interviewed for this story asked that we not disclose their names. There were a variety of reasons, including fear that their critical comments might provoke retribution from neighbors or the police. Two of them have criminal records and worry that disclosing their names might harm their efforts to leave that past behind and return to a normal life. Each disclosed the details of their convictions to the News-Times, which found them irrelevant to the issue of traffic and pedestrian stops and the kind of racial-profiling questions raised here.

Daniel Forbes is the author of 'Derail this Train Wreck' a novel on future rampant repression published by Fomite Press. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

News-Times Graphic

For more related reading found in the News-Times, see the stories below.

What about race relations in Cornelius?

For many years, the Cornelius Police Department had, at best, an estranged relationship with the town’s Latino residents, many of whom were distrustful or afraid of the police.

Paul Rubenstein, Cornelius police chief from 1999 to 2013, grew up in Mexico, speaks fluent Spanish and was on the board of Centro Cultural, a Latino social service agency based in Cornelius. But any sympathies he may have had for Latinos apparently didn’t trickle down to all his officers, said Jose Rivera, former executive director of Centro.

Rivera arrived at Centro five years ago, shortly before Rubenstein retired from what was then a chaotic, internally feuding department. “The cops were the last ones you’d call if something was going on,” he said.

Race-based traffic stops appeared to be the norm, according to several residents, including Doris Gonzalez Gomez, a 26-year-old Oregon State University graduate who said Cornelius officers stopped her father about 10 times over the years.

Rubenstein’s successor, Ken Summers, took over in the fall of 2012 and started improving relations with Latinos, Rivera said. The attitudes of local officers appeared to change and communication increased. “That was the beginning,” Rivera said.

By all accounts, matters have improved even further since the Washington County Sheriff’s Office took over the police department last July under the leadership of Lieutenant Gene Moss.

Moss has gone out of his way to give out his personal contact information, Rivera said. “He’s honest, approachable and accessible.”

Of the 13 sworn Cornelius deputies, one is “certified” fluent in Spanish and two others cope pretty well, Moss said.

And all the deputies attended a four-hour class this past January on “cultural agility” designed to steer officers away from “snap-judgment defense mechanisms” and towards evaluating everyone on an individual basis, he said.

In addition, when Moss talks about “race-neutral” policing, his stats appear to back that up. Since the WCSO takeover till the end of this past March, his agency’s traffic stops have been 53 percent white and only 35 percent Latino — in a town that’s half Latino.

But there’s still a lot of suspicion in a community unsure of its rights, with many unaware they can remain silent or not consent to a search, Gonzalez Gomez said.

And some Latinos still feel they’ve been racially profiled.

Karina, a 24-year-old George Fox University graduate, lives in Cornelius with her father, Simon, and both feel the atmosphere has improved under WCSO policing.

But Simon, described by Karina as a humble man who doesn’t drive a fancy car and tries to keep to the speed limit, has been pulled over by officers about eight times — 10 if you include a few stops in Hillsboro, she said. And while most of those stops were before Moss’s tenure, one was just six months ago.

During that stop, Simon said, he told the deputy he was going to record the encounter on his phone, at which point the deputy said ‘never mind’ and that Simon should just go about his business. But Simon said he declined and reached for his phone, which sent the cop packing.

“I’m tired of the BS,” Simon said.

-- Daniel Forbes

Chance of profiling bills’ passage ‘very good’

A trio of pending anti-profiling bills boast such a host of protected classes — including race, homelessness, gender identity and political affiliation — it’s hard to know who’s not included, aside from certain heterosexual white moderates with homes.

Oregon is one of only eight states that don’t currently ban profiling, according to the Center for Intercultural Organizing, although a poll cited by the CIO found that 85 percent of Oregonians believe profiling should be outlawed.

If passed, HB 2001 will require police agencies to collect data on self-initiated police stops and searches of anyone in the protected classes. HB 2003 defines profiling and the classes affected. And HB 2002 requires the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to document complaints, which can then be sent to the state Attorney General. The AG then may request — not require — the police agency to discipline any cops who have “repeated” complaints.

Rep. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) said the AG has no actual authority over local police. Yet HB 2001 does require the local agency to discipline any cop it determines has engaged in profiling, whether that discipline is through mediation or “other restorative justice measures.”

This requirement for local discipline flies in the face of current practice. For instance, the Hillsboro Police Department has tracked racial and other demographic data of officer initiated stops since June 2001, yet its memo outlining procedures states: “ ... nor will data collected be used to initiate discipline against the officer.” These are the only words in the memo underlined for emphasis.

Lt. Mike Rouches, spokesman for the HPD, asserts that there’s been no reason to discipline any Hillsboro cop for profiling in his more than two decades on the force.

Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz said that data indicating one of her officers might be stopping an unusually high number of minorities still wouldn’t, in and of itself, lead to discipline. “Data is one-sided and one-dimensional,” she said, adding that she prefers to rely on personal knowledge of her cops — a system, in effect, based on a good chief doing her job well.

Salome Chimuku, the CIO’s director of public policy, is nonetheless optimistic. Any change in the system, she said, “will keep cops on their toes. Now, a lot of cops only answer to each other.”

Pointing to the support of House Speaker Tina Kotek, Frederick rates the bills’ chance of passage as “very good.”

-- Daniel Forbes

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