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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - 'My reaction was, I want to go home tonight. I have small kids.' Kayse Jama says about a traffic stop in Newberg.Once a year. That, says state Rep. Lew Frederick, is how often he gets stopped in his car for what he is certain is no good reason. And that, he says, is an improvement.

“It’s only once a year now that I’ve got gray hair,” says the 64-year-old longtime Irvington resident.

No good reason doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. Frederick believes his once-a-year stops are due to racial profiling. He’s black. That’s enough, he says, once a year.

“I will be pulled over for incredibly minor things just to check on me,” Frederick says.

Members of the minority communities for years have talked about being pulled over for “Driving While Black” or “Driving While Hispanic.” There are black and brown men and women who insist unwarranted racial profiling still happens on a regular basis in Portland. There are others who say the type of stops Frederick describes happen less frequently than they once did in Portland, but are still common in suburban and rural communities around the state.

The truth is, nobody knows how frequently this type of profiling occurs. The practice is fairly common with young black men — on Friday and Saturday nights Portland police officers with the Gang Enforcement Team regularly stop and engage them in conversations. Those conversations often start with officers asking if they can pat down the young men to make sure they aren’t carrying weapons, and according to police they are an attempt at relationship building and showing a presence in high crime hot spots.

However, nobody knows to what extent middle-aged and middle-class black and brown men and women are stopped as a result of profiling. Oregon has set up a new complaint system for people who think they have been victims of law enforcement profiling (see sidebar). Frederick and others say that even if they have begun to age out of the “Driving While Black” phenomenon, the impact of the stops from when they were younger still affects their behavior today.

Here’s what Frederick calls “the classic,” which typically occurs near his Northeast Portland home. He says he was driving his 2003 Buick Century about five years ago when a Portland Police officer signaled him to pull over.

“He asked if I needed any help,” Frederick recalls. “I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘You were driving pretty slowly through the neighborhood and I wondered whether you were lost.’

“I said, ‘I’m not lost. I live right here.’ He said, ‘I was just wondering. I just wanted to help.’

“I said, ‘I understand why you think you were helping, but the fact is you were identifying me as not part of this neighborhood.”

Some officers see a black man driving slowly and alone through Northeast Portland as a potential criminal, Frederick explains. And they don’t understand the toll such seemingly harmless stops can take on a black or brown man or woman once the stops become expected, and resented.

According to Frederick, his stories are not unique. “Every black guy I know of has had an experience like that,” he says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - 'Nervous could have gotten me killed.' State Rep. Lew Frederick recalling a traffic stop.

Welcome to my world

Not all the stops Frederick suffers are classic. In 1992 he was working as a newscaster for KGW, riding shotgun in the company minivan while his white photographer drove. In King City, Frederick says, they were signaled to pull over.

The signaling officer didn’t approach the KGW van, according to Frederick. He called for backup and waited for a second police car to arrive. When the officer did arrive at the driver’s side window he asked for registration and said the van had been going “a little fast,” Fredrick says.

Here’s the rest of Frederick’s account:

“I said to the police officer, ‘The registration is in the glove compartment. In this car, the glove compartment is under my seat.’

“So I started slowly moving my hands under my seat and his gun came out across the face of my photographer. He never said a word to me.

“My photographer is freaking out. He’s going, ‘What was that?’

“I said to my photographer afterward, welcome to my world, because most times my wife would be in the car, or my kids.”

Frederick says he later called the King City police chief, who told him the officer was new to the force and nervous.

“I said, ‘Nervous could have gotten me killed.’ “

Pastor Matt Hennessee of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church has lived in Portland for 27 years and has had a significantly different experience than Frederick. He says he’s heard a lot of racial profiling stories, but “I have not had anything but good interactions whether they were with Beaverton police, Portland police or West Linn police.”

Which isn’t to say that Hennessee hasn’t been stopped. Sometimes, he says, when he’s out late at night or early in the morning — often when a church family has asked him to come pray with them — he gets pulled over. His view is that those stops were justified.

“Typically I have been tired and headed home from the hospital or the family’s home and have crossed the line some,” Hennessee says. There has always been a legitimate reason for the stop, such as a tail light not working. Each time, he says, “I make it my business to be cordial, courteous, and affable so as not to create a harmful encounter.”

Each time, police have simply checked his driving record and let him go.

Frederick wonders if Hennessee would have been stopped for those “legitimate” reasons if he were white. He says he compares notes with white neighbors in Irvington who tell him they’ve never been pulled over in their neighborhood for minor violations such as burned-out tail lights.

“The issue is not arrests,” Frederick says. “It’s not stops that may necessarily be cataloged. The issue we struggle with is the belief that folks can just come up and hassle you ... You get to the point where you say enough, because there’s nothing you can do.”

Stopping people solely on the basis of race has never been acceptable, says Portland Police Bureau spokesman Pete Simpson. But often, Simpson says, people who are stopped think race was the reason when it was not. That’s why officers are instructed to take the time to explain why they have stopped someone, according to Simpson.

“If someone believes they’re being profiled, it’s real to them,” he says.

The Rev. T. Allen Bethel, senior pastor at Maranatha Church in Northeast Portland and president of the activist Albina Ministerial Alliance, has a confession of sorts.

“I have never been stopped in Portland,” he says.

But, Bethel adds, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t felt the impact of being profiled. He was pulled over when he lived in Boston years ago, by a police officer he says clearly was intent on hassling him.

Living in upper-class, mostly white Alameda has had its moments, he’s convinced. “I am one of the lucky ones,” he says. “I have not been pulled over. But I have observed officers in cars who will follow for a block or two and then turn off.”

Driving past a police car, he says, he occasionally sees an officer give him a “what are you doing out here” look.

Bethel is convinced profiling stops in Portland are less frequent than they once were. Older blacks tell him they go out less frequently and are more careful about where they go. Also, he says, the proliferation of social media and cell phone cameras has made police more aware that they are being monitored. Still, the Boston stop and the sense that he’s being looked at take a toll, according to Bethel.

“If you have been profiled, the next time you see an officer heading in your direction or meeting you, there is an automatic rush of adrenaline. Why is this officer behind me?” he says.

That sounds about right to Kayse Jama, executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing in Northeast Portland. Jama says he was last pulled over two years ago when he was driving home from the coast. He says he is conditioned to drive extra carefully in small towns, and entering Newberg he purposely had moved over to the right lane of traffic because he did not want to appear to be speeding.

Entering downtown Newberg, Jama says, a police car started to pass him on the left and then stayed parallel with his car.

“We had eye contact with each other and he immediately hit his brakes so hard that he swerved and almost hit my bumper,” Jama, a Somalian immigrant, says. “I knew it would be a matter of seconds before I would be stopped.”

Those seconds, according to Jama, were consumed by one overriding thought. “My reaction was, I want to go home tonight. I have small kids,” he says.

Jama, 42, says he has learned to keep his hands on the steering wheel, which he did as the officer approached. He asked why he had been stopped and the officer said his tags had expired, which Jama says was untrue.

“I smiled and told him, I think, officer, you have profiled me,’” Jama says he responded.

The next day Jama called the Newberg police department, provided the officer’s badge number, talked to the supervisor and, he says, was told that the officer “stops everybody.”

That small town setup, Jama says, is why he lobbied for the statewide profiling hotline recently put into effect. “The system obviously is broken and you cannot expect police departments to investigate themselves,” he says.

Profiling takes its toll

It’s been eight or nine years since Tawna Sanchez, for 19 years director of Family Services at the Native American Youth and Family Center, was pulled over. Which may be a sign of improved police/minority relations, she says. In fact, Sanchez says she’s hoping the hotline data shows stops are becoming increasingly rare.

Sanchez says she was stopped at sunset ostensibly because she hadn’t yet turned on her lights. The officer, she says, asked the same question she and other Native Americans have become accustomed to hearing.

“African-American women are asked, ‘Is this your car?’ and white folks get, ‘Do you know why I stopped you?’” Sanchez says. Native Americans? “Have you been drinking today?” says Sanchez, who says most people can identify her ethnicity with a casual glance.

“I haven’t had a drink in 39 years,” she adds.

Portland real estate developer Ray Leary, now 62, says he hasn’t been stopped since he was in his forties. But the memory of one of those stops is indelible, mostly, he says, because his 10-, 9- and 7-year-old sons were in the backseat.

Leary says he was driving on Northeast Fremont Street three blocks from his home when a woman officer pulled him over and said he had failed to put on his blinker when he turned a corner. He claims she was extremely aggressive, and that he became upset, telling her repeatedly to “Just give me the ticket.”

“They’re watching their dad, their only parent — I was a single parent — be accosted by a policewoman and none of us knew why,” Leary says. “They’re thinking their dad is about to get in trouble and go to jail.”

Leary says his sons still talk about the incident and how frightened they were. He notes that it has been over 20 years since he has been stopped. He doesn’t think his sons are safe from a similar incident. He’s guessing that young black men are now stopped more than ever, and he’s nervous whenever his sons go out in the evening. In fact, he still reacts to police cars when he’s driving.

“There’s this thing that happens to black men when they are followed by a police car,” Leary says. “There’s a chemical reaction that is palpable. You know that anything could happen based on (an officer’s) discretion. What could be more vulnerable than that?

“My muscles tense up, I’m on the steering wheel with two hands and when he turns off there’s a giant exhale.”

Maybe Driving While Black stops are down in Portland. Initial results from the Oregon hotline might support that conclusion (see sidebar). But Lew Frederick doubts that’s the case in many of the state’s small towns. He says even the occasional profiling incident takes its toll.

“The fact is,” he says, “whenever I am pulled over I think, ‘Am I going to die today?’”

State has hard time gaining traction

Either profiling by law enforcement in Oregon is extremely rare, or a state attempt to monitor the problem is having a hard time getting the word out. Third possibility? Victims of profiling just don’t want to go public.

As part of a 2015 bill prohibiting profiling by law enforcement, the state of Oregon set up a profiling hotline last Oct. 1 to take citizen complaints. So far, 12 complaints have been received — only two about Portland police. Most, but not all, are from people who say they were racially profiled, according to Brian Renauer, Director of the Portland State University Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute. Profiling can also involve people who are stopped for different characteristics, including gender identity and homelessness.

Complaints get follow-up from a Portland State University researcher, but that’s where things get sticky. The hotline program was approved with $250,000 in funding from the Legislature so that officials finally could get a handle on the frequency of profiling and where it’s taking place. But many people who complain also want action.

People who register complaints can choose to remain anonymous. But then there won’t be an investigation into the incident by the police department in question or by independent police review boards, which exist only in Portland and Eugene. Without an investigation there can’t be what Renauer calls “a teachable moment” for police.

On the other hand, not having your local police department know you complained about them might feel safer to some, Renauer concedes.

And the Portland review board process has not exactly gained a reputation for getting results. Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice noted that the Portland process of investigating complaints against police had become “so complex and time-consuming that the objectives — officer accountability and public confidence — have been lost.”

Eight of the 12 hotline complainants have requested anonymity, with five willing to put their names to their complaints. The two Portland complaints have been turned over to the Police Independent Police Review Board.

In 2015, the IPR received 19 complaints of its own that alleged profiling by Portland police, according to IPR senior management analyst Derek Reinke. All were given a preliminary investigation. Fourteen were dismissed. Two were mediated and one led to a “service improvement opportunity” for the officer, who was to have a conversation with his or her superior officer about the incident.

Neither of the two fully investigated complaints led to sustained findings against the officer because of insufficient evidence, according to Reinke. In fact, IPR has yet to encounter a profiling case with enough evidence to lead to discipline for a police officer. So far this year, the IPR has received two complaints about profiling, and both came from people under the age of 40.

State Rep. Lew Frederick, who lives in Northeast Portland and was one of the sponsors of the bill establishing the hotline, says he’s “not surprised” at the small number of complaints.

“People don’t know about it,” Frederick says. “It takes time for people to know about it and for credibility to be established. Six months is not enough time.”

Renauer agrees. He says that when Kansas opened a similar profiling hotline in 2011, the state received 17 complaints for its entire first year. Last year the Kansas hotline received 28 complaints. Renauer says he expects Oregon’s complaints to eventually reach numbers similar to those in Kansas.

Portland police spokesman Pete Simpson says it’s likely today’s officers are less likely to profile than those of previous generations. But if people think they are profiled, he hopes they report the incidents.

“We want to hear from the community if they feel they are stopped solely based on ethnicity,” Simpson says. “If we don’t know about it, it’s very hard to look into those issues.”

But even Simpson acknowledges that complaints are hard to substantiate. “Unfortunately, it is a challenge to determine that that is the only reason someone was stopped,” he says.


To report a profiling incident:


Phone: 503-725-5221

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