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Portland's largest suburban communities approach police reform and budget cuts with caution

Facing a statewide deadline for submitting their 2020-21 budgets, several of the Portland metro region's major city and county governments voted last month to keep planned policing budget increases intact.

PMG PHOTO: DIEGO DIAZ - In late May, protesters lined Hall Boulevard in downtown Beaverton. Suburban police budget increases in the metro region advanced amid nationwide calls for police reform, including defunding law enforcement agencies and reinvesting the funds in other programs. They also represent a marked contrast to the Portland City Council's recent budget adjustment to cut dollars from four agencies associated with the Portland Police Bureau and redirect those funds toward alternative community resources.

Suburban activists are challenging local police forces and councils to enact major reforms sooner rather than later. But the pressure has thus far had little impact on the agencies' bottom line.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - During a June protest at Tualatin High School, Abdi Mohamoud reads the names of people killed by police.  The city councils of Gresham, Hillsboro, Beaverton and Tigard—four of the region's five largest suburbs—all passed budget increases for their city police forces. The boards of commissioners in both Washington County and Clackamas County also voted to increase the budgets of their sheriff's offices.

Vancouver, Washington, which is Portland's largest suburb, follows a different budget cycle than cities in Oregon. The Vancouver City Council is expected to adopt a new budget in November.

While each of those governing bodies promised further community engagement and consideration of reforms—and some, such as Beaverton, assured residents that the policing budget could still see adjustments this year—suburban police reforms, budgetary and otherwise, have edged along at a much slower pace than was the case for Portland's police force.

Activists rally outside Portland

In Portland's neighboring cities, organizations like Gresham Stand Up — a racial justice protest movement put together by recent Gresham High School graduates—Sunrise Beaverton and the Tigard High School Black Student Union seek to amplify the voices of young and marginalized residents. Some activists report a strong sense of contention between the change they're asking for and the change their city government is willing to even entertain, let alone adopt.

Diya Balakrishnan and Pedro Evenezer, hub coordinator and hub organizer, respectively, for Sunrise Beaverton, said they felt shut out and delegitimized in their attempts to consult with Beaverton's mayor and city council members.

Sunrise Beaverton proposes more radical police defunding, community reinvestment and eventual police abolition, and Balakrishnan and Evenezer said they were frustrated by the city's tentative consideration of more moderate reforms their organization first brought to the table.

Balakrishnan and Evenezer, alongside others, initially proposed that Beaverton adopt the police violence prevention policies outlined by the #8CantWait campaign, a series of reforms limiting use-of-force policies that have gained traction after George Floyd's death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Beaverton hasn't adopted some reforms included in the campaign, as the city still allows officers to use chokeholds if they feel their lives are in danger and has not banned officers from shooting at moving vehicles. The Beaverton City Council has promised to weigh those reforms after community dialogue and data collection, but Balakrishnan and Evenezer say the changes should come much faster.

"#8CantWait includes very simple measures that should already be in place for the police," Balakrishan said. "One of the responses we get all the time is, 'We're going to need more data before we take action on this.' If we could just get them to a place where they hear us out, we can show them: Here's the data, this works, and it has worked for other cities."

The city of Beaverton has released plans for six community listening sessions on the subject of reform, to be scheduled in tandem with monthly public city council meetings from July to December. There's concern among activists like Balakrishnan and Evenezer, however, that a drawn-out process may be a deliberate attempt to quell community outcry and avoid more challenging, big-ticket reforms, such as defunding police programs and redesigning emergency responses.

"They're trying to ride the wave until everything dies down, because that's what has happened in the past," Evenezer said. "We can't even compromise with them because they're so out of touch. Any 'compromise' would be a loss."

A point of contention for Sunrise Beaverton is the fact that Beaverton, which cut its overall budget for the next fiscal year, increased its police budget by $2.3 million, to $37 million. City councilor and mayoral candidate Lacey Beaty, the only Beaverton city councilor to make eventual police budget reductions and reinvestment an explicit goal, said the key to securing tangible change lies in continued community pressure and engagement.

"This is the longest time I've seen an issue before City Council this long and this intense," Beaty said at a Sunrise Beaverton "open mic" session on Facebook Live. "It's working, but we can't let it drop off the back end. If we want change, this is the time where you have to be organized, you have to have a clear message for City Council."

Responses vary in suburbs

Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, who is running against Beaty, has signaled an openness to police budget reductions and adjustments alongside other reforms, and the Beaverton City Council issued a statement after its budget vote clarifying that the annual budget is open to further amendment at any time. But Evenezer and Balakrishnan are skeptical that major budgetary redirection will see debate.

The Hillsboro City Council has mirrored Beaverton's approach to police reforms and funding adaptations. The council said in a statement it is soliciting insights and experiences from diverse members of the Hillsboro community and has scheduled a work session for Aug. 18 to process those responses.

Understanding community members' experiences with police "will inform a holistic conversation that includes policy and budget options," the council's statement said. Hillsboro passed a police budget of $40.4 million for 2020-21 in mid-June, up 5% from the $38.7 million adopted police department budget for 2019-20.

Tigard's City Council has stated the need for substantial community engagement prior to budgetary and policy reform, as well. While Tigard increased its 2020-21 policing budget by some $2.4 million following the passage of a public safety levy in May, Mayor Jason Snider has endorsed potentially dramatic police reform measures.

In an interview, Snider said that in addition to examining the resources delegated to certain programs, Tigard should investigate "even more broadly what our role in social services (is), whether and how we should be spending all of our public safety resources, and whether we should perhaps be addressing some of the societal issues that end up going to the police."

Months after Tigard voters approved a funding bump for the program, some parents and students are calling for the removal of school resource officers from Tigard and Tualatin schools.

Abdi Mohamoud, the president of Tigard High School's Black Student Union, was contacted by the mayor after speaking at a local protest specifically focused on racial justice in suburbs like Tigard, not just urban areas.

Mohamoud admits that planned conversations between students of color in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, other members of TTSD and the cities of Tigard and Tualatin will likely be challenging.

"In a predominantly white community, it's very difficult to have these conversations, because how do you have these conversations with a white person?" Mohamoud said. "How do you tell them, 'I need you to feel compassion for me'?"

While many Westside city officials say they are at least open to having further discussions on police budget allocations, that's not the case in Portland's more politically conservative eastern suburbs.

A majority of Gresham's city councilors signed onto an op-ed written by Councilor Jerry Hinton and published in the Gresham Outlook that rejected the prospect of defunding the Gresham Police Department in any form, while leaving the door open for policing policy reform.

Hinton's statement touted federal statistics from the Department of Justice that found "no indication or evidence of racial or ethnic disparity by the Gresham Police Department" in data on vehicle stops.

Shemar Lenox, one of the leaders of Gresham Stand Up, rebuffed the idea that low racial profiling statistics in one area translate into a lack of racial profiling in Gresham.

"Most of our city councilors are white, so they wouldn't really know about racial profiling because they don't really experience that," said Lenox, who is Black. "I feel like going out in areas like Rockwood, where predominantly Black and Hispanic people are at, and asking, 'What do you guys experience out here?' (would be beneficial). I see a lot of cops out in Rockwood, and I've been followed by Gresham police four times."

A different path than Portland's

Both city officials and community organizers acknowledge Gresham, Hillsboro, Beaverton and Tigard are not the same as Portland, which is by far the largest city in Oregon.

Suburban police departments oversee jurisdictions with less urban density—and thus, on average, less crime—and populations that are generally less ethnically diverse and older, not to mention smaller in size.

Doyle said that in Beaverton, specifically, because the city has a smaller total tally of residents, there is less need for the Beaverton Police Department to adopt the complicated web of agencies and task forces managed by the Portland Police Bureau.

With less crime and less overall staffing in suburban police departments, areas for reform may not appear as glaring as they are in Portland, Doyle said.

Fierce community backlash against police brutality in Portland, with protests raging for weeks and thousands of emails, phone calls and public testimony besieging Portland City Hall, also garnered a level of media attention sufficient to pressure public officials into action, Balakrishnan, Evenezer and Hinton all said. And, they added, efforts of activists to extend change to Portland's neighbors have drawn less media attention.

"(City council members) can ignore the organizers and activists as much as they can, but once that stuff is on paper with a media title on it, it has a greater level of pressure," Evenezer said.

Hinton, the Gresham city councilor, said activist pressure in Portland led the City Council to decrease Portland's policing budget in a way he feels is corrosive to public safety, a decision he doesn't want to repeat in his city.

"The primary reason governments exist is for the safety of their citizens, and if you put that on the back burner and let all these other talking heads change that mandate, then all of a sudden, you've got no stabilization," Hinton said.

Evenezer and Mohamoud said that suburbs' "different" policing tactics don't necessarily mean "better."

What distinguishes systemic racism in Portland policing and in their own cities' policing, they said, is not the degree to which racial inequities exist, but how often they are exposed.

"Racism is everywhere, and the issues that Portland faces, we face, and we just don't talk about them," Mohamoud said. "That's why it's so difficult right now, because this is the first time these conversations are being had."

Evenezer said that while environmental and population differences affect how suburbs approach policing compared to big cities—and how suburban governments approach reform—that doesn't change their police forces' fundamental problems.

"We have the same issues, and of course the way they're going to come about and the way we respond to them is going to be different, because we're different cities," Evenezer said.

Editor's note: Citing an out-of-date budget document, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized Tigard's policing budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The Tigard City Council approved a $2.4 million increase to the budget area for the police department, following voter approval of an estimated $2.18 million local option levy to bolster police staffing levels.

Shauna Muckle, a recent graduate of Jesuit High School, is one of two summer interns working for Amplify, a Metro-supported project aimed at elevating the voices of students from communities historically underrepresented in local newsrooms.

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