Former Police Chief and Mayor Tom Potter on today's Portland
The members of the Southeast Portland Rotary Club and two guests listened raptly, on Monday, June 7th, as Woodstock resident, former Mayor, and retired Portland Police Chief Tom Potter, shared his experiences and thoughts – both practical and profound – in a virtual meeting of the local club.
"I'm not going to criticize the [current] Mayor or Police Chief," he began. "They have a difficult job."
Potter's discussion focused, for much of the talk, on aspects of "police culture" – what it is, and what role it plays in how police relate to the community. In the late 1960s and 1970s he saw a Portland police culture in which many officers took care of all types of problems with an attitude of their knowing best how to deal with the community's problems of violence, anger, crime, and protests.
He said that, as a beat officer in Inner Southeast Portland, it didn't feel right to him and it wasn't working well, so he said to himself that he wanted to get into police management to make some positive changes.
"Then I went to Japan," he commented. "The police there were much closer to the community. I was impressed. [In training there,] three new officers met with three citizens who told the officers what they expected of them. The commanding officer made sure the officers knew what to do, by working with the community."
Potter, who served as Chief of the Portland Police Bureau from 1990 to 1993, knew that a police culture of "leave us alone and let us do our job" was not the way to go. "We invited 200 people [in Portland] to make a plan, with incremental steps over five years." With the model of "Community Policing" created and implemented, police officers attended neighborhood association meetings, and were encouraged to see their badge as a symbol of trust to the community. But, he reflected, changing "police culture" was not an easy task, and finally he found himself "dog tired" of trying to get officers to see themselves as "peace officers" first and foremost; consulting with the community about policies and practices. He told Mayor Katz he was retiring as Chief; and then, in 2005, he ran for and was elected Mayor of Portland, serving for four years.
Today, Potter still believes that "Community Policing" would help solve many of Portland's problems today; one characteristic of it in particular that he cited was that police should explain why they do what they do.
One example he cited, in response to a question about last year's dissolution of the "Gun Violence Reduction Team" – a team which, he said, he believed had been effective and had been worth retaining – was that when traffic stops were made by such a team, those who are stopped by police for what they feel is no reason, complain they are victims of "profiling". That, in fact, is the biggest factor that the City Council cited in dissolving the team. But, he said, had officers making these traffic stops taken the time to explain why they were making them – "There was a shooting near here tonight, and your car matches the description of the vehicle used, so we're just checking" – which in fact was the real reason for most such stops – would have made a big difference in how the public perceived such traffic stops, and might have saved the GVRT.
When asked during the Rotary meeting what he thinks of Portland's unusual "Commissioner" form of city government [see the BEE editorial in this issue, for more about that], he responded that he favors changing it, because he said that the Commissioner form of government, which has no allocated district representation, "stinks".
Potter is not the only one who has made a presentation to the Southeast Portland Rotary Club in the last month. Most meetings have a speaker of interest. On May 24th several people involved in planning a new, safer, Interstate Bridge shared information with members and guests. Yes, a new Interstate Bridge is finally in the future.
Rotary International, as well as Southeast Portland Rotary, are well-known for their community service and social activities, and meeting presentations on local and regional issues. Rotary's motto, "Service Above Self", applies to all chapters around the world. Rotary is a non-political, non-religious service organization open to all, with 35,000 member clubs worldwide in practically all countries, totaling 1.2 million members.
Past Southeast Portland Rotary President Kathy Stromvig tells THE BEE that many interesting and topical meeting presentations are in the future. She adds that club members are currently reaching out to Inner Southeast neighborhood associations to see what they need, and will continue charitable community work in keeping with Rotary values and principles.
Rotary's racial justice group meets every Saturday, and recently heard from Mike Myers, hired by the city to coordinate community safety plans. They will hear from APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) in the near future about its work in Southeast Portland.
If you would like to "tune in" to hear about Southeast Portland Rotary projects and discussions of local and regional problems and issues, the group meets every Monday at noon, currently virtually, on ZOOM. The club expects to resume in-person lunch meetings, still open to anyone interested, at Moreland Presbyterian Church's public room in Westmoreland in September.
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