Clackamas County District Attorney John Wentworth said more work needs to be done to address ongoing criminal justice disparities related to race during a virtual town hall about public safety in the county.
County commissioners hosted the Nov. 3 town hall alongside panelists including Wentworth, Clackamas County Sheriff Angela Brandenburg and Gladstone Police Chief John Schmerber, who serves as district representative with the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police.
"There are centuries of oppression that have resulted in racial disparities in all systems of today's society; in health care, income, wealth, homeownership and residential segregation, occupational segregation, education, foster care and, yes, the criminal justice system," Wentworth said.
Recent data supports this claim. In 2020, the Oregon Statistical Transparency of Policing Program singled out the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office for displaying significant disparities in certain metrics used to assess bias in traffic and pedestrian stops.
The report indicated Clackamas County deputies had both a notable rate of unsuccessful searches and disparities in how they treated drivers after they were stopped. Of the 1,227 Black people CCSO stopped between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020, 37% were cited, searched or arrested. That's compared to 32.4% for white people stopped in similar situations. For the 2,802 Latinx people stopped, nearly 38% were cited, searched or arrested compared to 34.4% of white people.
Wentworth noted that since the murder of George Floyd, he has observed increases in the "quantity and quality" of community discussions about racial justice in law enforcement with a higher level of police engagement than he has seen in 27 years as a prosecutor, yet added the county has to continue working to address disparities.
"I think law enforcement is looking at its work through an equity and inclusion lens that I've never seen before," Wentworth said, "and the willingness of community leaders to listen, and more importantly, respond with action has improved, all in the wake of George Floyd's murder."
Wentworth added that the DA office and other local agencies have been frequently reaching out to communities of color, taking more of a collaborative approach than what he has previously seen in traditional outreach practices.
"There's a recognition and acceptance that there's much more work to be done and there are tough conversations to be had," he said.
After a Milwaukie resident during the town hall expressed concern that policing and criminal justice practices are not applied equally across all races in Clackamas County, Wentworth offered statistics to indicate statewide improvements, including a 2021 analysis that revealed prison population ratios between incarcerated Black and white Oregonians reduced from 8.2:1 to 4.2:1 since the passing of Measure 11 in 1994.
While that is true, it also means that over four times more Black people are incarcerated in Oregon prisons than white counterparts in 2021 — and additional data indicates that Measure 11, which sets mandatory minimum sentences for felonies, is still used far more often on Black residents than white residents in Clackamas County.
A 2021 report from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission suggests that Black Clackamas County residents are nearly nine times more likely to be indicted of a Measure 11 crime than white residents and roughly five times more likely than Latinx residents.
In the report, the OCJC reveals that Clackamas County between 2013-18 reported 563 total indictments for Measure 11 crimes, 422 of those indictments served to white residents, 50 to Black residents, and 74 to Latinx residents.
Comparing those statistics with reported racial population rates in Clackamas County, whose residents are 88.9% white, 1.2% Black and 9% Hispanic or Latino according to U.S. Census estimates for 2019, approximately one in 1,000 white residents will be indicted for Measure 11 crimes, compared to over nine in 1,000 Black residents and nearly two out of every 1,000 Latinx residents.
Wentworth said that among the necessary conversations about solving disparities in criminal justice is a close look into whether or not defunding police is an effective means to improving public safety.
"It needs to be OK to ask whether some of the so-called solutions to racial injustice will have unintended consequences to the very communities they are meant to heal," Wentworth said. "Are we at a point yet...where we can ask and have an honest conversation about whether defunding the police has resulted in more dangerous communities?"
He referenced recent record increases in Portland's homicide rates leading Mayor Ted Wheeler to call for roughly $7 million in additional spending on crime reduction initiatives, including officer retention and rehiring, body-worn cameras and other new programs.
Regarding racism in Clackamas County, Wentworth said the severity of the issue is further reflected by recent incidents including a Nazi swastika painted by a county employee next to a memorial for Jermelle Madison, Jr., a Black man who died after attempting suicide while incarcerated at the Clackamas County Jail.
"It's so illustrative when we have a county employee who can paint a swastika on a sidewalk and promote that on social media with pride," Wentworth said, adding that he recently heard the N word yelled out of the window of a car in downtown Oregon City on Friday.
"That's unacceptable and Clackamas County is better than that," Wentworth said. "We have work to do, but I know the people on this call, the people who are listening, the people who are speaking are committed to making Clackamas County better and I'm committed to working with them."
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