Our Opinion: Society poised to change for the better if we let it
Emotions are running hot, but metal is forged in heat. We believe that forces could come together, right now, to create lasting and meaningful changes in the concepts of policing, governance and equity.
That's because the righteously angry protests — in cities, suburbs and rural communities throughout Oregon and across the nation — succeeded. The Washington Post last week reported that support for Black Lives Matter hovered around 40% in 2018. But a new poll found strong, bipartisan support for the protests. The Post reports that 87% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 53% of Republicans support this summer's demonstrations.
In Portland, thousands upon thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand action on the issue of police brutality aimed at African Americans. They are part of this remarkable turnaround.
One we cannot let go to waste.
The Portland City Council voted Wednesday to cut the Portland Police Bureau budget. Even in the suburbs, city officials in Hillsboro and Tigard have fielded questions over the past week about the purpose of school resource officers, the value of community policing and how to hold police officers accountable when misconduct occurs.
Read the Portland Tribune's story on the partial defunding of the Portland Police Bureau, published June 17, 2020.
Don't get distracted by the unfortunate slogan "defund the police" — that doesn't mean what some commentators and political operatives want you to believe it means.
"Defund the police" is a movement that says modern police departments have been asked to do far too much.
They are the monitors of busted taillights, the referees in neighborhood spats and monitors of alcohol consumption in public parks. In some jurisdictions, they are the enforcers when people ride the train without a ticket or let their grass grows too tall. They are asked to be influencers, to change young people's self-destructive behavior. And they are first responders for people in mental health crisis.
If there's a person screaming at her inner demons in a city park or on a street corner, no one actually believes that the right response includes handcuffs, a patrol car and dumping the person off at an emergency room. Yet that's been the response — whether in Portland, in Forest Grove, in Beaverton, or virtually anywhere else in this country — for far too long.
It's time to stop treating police departments like they're a Swiss Army knife, constantly morphing as the answer to each of society's ills.
The police do serve a vital role in society, and that is protecting people's rights.
The Bill of Rights famously guarantees free expression and the right to bear arms, the First and Second amendments. But much of it, in fact, deals with the rights of the accused: shielding them from unwarranted searches and seizures, guaranteeing their right to be tried by a jury of their peers, prohibiting "cruel and unusual" punishment, requiring due process, and more.
People also have a right to their lives and livelihoods. In cases where they are actively threatened, the police are called to their defense. In cases where they have been violated, the police are called to find out the perpetrator and bring them to account for their crimes against a fellow person. These are both appropriate and critical functions of law enforcement.
Let cops be peace officers. Let detectives investigate serious crime. Free up our officers from tasks that should be handled by social workers and mental health professionals. Fund the department for those traditional roles, and divert energy and money to other agencies better suited to other tasks. Supervise their actions, discipline bad actors and change the culture of the profession. And drill down on the root causes of racial inequity and violence toward people of color, within our police agencies and other institutions.
We back the concept behind three bills that the Oregon Legislative People of Color Caucus will pursue, both in a special session expected to be held within the next few weeks and during the regular 2021 legislative session.
As state Sen. Lew Frederick of Portland, one of Oregon's highest-ranking black officials, explains it, the first proposed bill says that if an arbitrator concludes there was police misconduct, the arbitrator cannot lessen any disciplinary action taken by the police agency against the officer based on that misconduct.
The second bill would require the Oregon Department of Justice, led by the elected Oregon attorney general, to investigate deaths or serious physical injuries when police use deadly force. Those investigations now are conducted by police — though not the agencies employing the officers involved in the use of force — and elected district attorneys in Oregon's 36 counties.
The third bill would direct the House Judiciary Committee to convene a bipartisan work group to look at Oregon's law governing police use of deadly force when making an arrest or preventing an escape. The measure is intended to prompt recommendations for change in the 2021 session.
Read a commentary by state Sen. Lew Frederick, published online June 15, 2020, on legislative proposals to curb police violence.
Three bills, laudable though they are, important as passing them might be, won't solve this problem.
Even defunding the police will only address part of it.
Let's be clear: Institutional racism is one of the most insidious problems facing America. This is an issue bigger than police departments. It's bigger than City Hall. It's the far worse, far more deadly pox that's been upon our nation far longer than COVID-19.
The thousands of peaceful protesters who have taken to our streets were right to do so. This month's protests have changed the narrative and have awakened a majority of the nation to a longstanding wrong; just as those who raised their voices as part of the #MeToo movement successfully changed the narrative on the longstanding problem of sexual violence against women.
Our praise for organized protest does not include the looters, the arsonists, the window-smashers. These people — mostly young, mostly male, mostly white — are terrorizing downtown businesses who'd been battered by months of pandemic and quarantine. Clerks, wait staff and baristas, eager to get back into the flow of the community, have seen their workplaces trashed. That did nothing for the cause of Black Lives Matter. That was just petty crime.
True reform, real and lasting reform, could be a reality. The majority of the people want it. Elected leaders want it. If police officers and police unions want it, and will be part of the solution, we could look back at these tumultuous weeks as the beginning of the healing process for a city, a state and a nation long beset by the pandemic of racism.
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