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Tom Potter, former mayor and retired police chief, calls for systemic change

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tom Potter, Portlands former mayor and police chief, is a vocal proponent of police reform. He calls for a return to a mission that puts community first and says a cultural shift is needed.Most days, it's easy for Tom Potter to put his days of city governance behind him, but lately, that's been challenging.

The former Portland mayor and police chief spent nearly three decades behind the badge and three years at the helm of the Portland Police Bureau until 1993. He later spent a term running the city as mayor from 2005 until 2009.

Potter's life is far less political or complicated now. He can gauge the temperament of the city from a comfortable distance, in more comfortable attire.

"My wife and I sometimes like to sleep in and lounge around in our pajamas until late in the morning," he confesses. It's a welcome departure from the stiff uniforms and suits that marked his years in leadership positions in Portland, the city he grew up in.

But there's a level of discomfort buzzing inside him.

He can't shake the way he felt on May 25, when an officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of George Floyd, killing him. Or the way he feels about the persistent protests on Portland's streets and resounding calls to dismantle or defund the Portland Police Bureau. While he calls the efforts short-sighted and unrealistic, Potter, 80, is frank about what he says is a systemic problem with the current model of policing across the United States.

"I don't think we can abolish it, but I think we can make some serious, deep level changes in terms of how the (police) behave," Potter said. "Right now, the tunnel seems to be getting darker and narrower in terms of positive change."

Potter recently was invited to a Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meeting, where he reflected on his experience and thoughts about the current state of affairs with candor. He expanded on them in subsequent phone interviews.

Potter worked as a cop for 27 years. His daughter followed in his footsteps, working for the same bureau.

After retiring, he visited police bureaus around the country and even served as interim director of Oregon's police training and certification agency, the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, for a six-month stint.

The same issues he identified within police culture back in the 1980s and '90s are still gripping agencies today, Potter said. Years of failure to address them has led to a widening disconnect between police and the public.

"They still see themselves as a militarized unit," he said of police officers. "Their job is to kick ass and take names of the bad people, but (what happens) if they don't know who the bad people are and they assess that based on their own prejudices and preconceptions? Police have to go into places that aren't necessarily safe. Their concern is about going home at night, but the other side of that coin is, the community should have that right as well."

Potter is clear that his criticisms aren't directed at current Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, or Mayor Ted Wheeler.

"I don't feel it's my place to tell the mayor or chief what they should do with the Police Bureau," he said. "I support the current chief."

But like the other retired police chiefs and officers across the country with whom he regularly hops on video conference calls, Potter said he feels change is sorely needed and entirely possible.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tom Potter, former Portland mayor and retired Portland Police Bureau chief, at his home in Southeast Portland.Potter points to Camden, New Jersey, which scrapped its entire police department and started fresh. Years later, Camden's chief of police was spotted marching alongside organizers at a Black Lives Matter march. That's the kind of culture that should prevail, Potter said.

"Police culture is endemic throughout the United States and it's based in racism," he said. He feels it's also misguided.

"When I was chief, the highest ranking officer in the organization, I would go around through roll call and talk about community policing," Potter recalled. "The first thing I would talk about is 'our first loyalty is to the community, our second is to each other.'"

Shortly after he started those talks, he was visited by a union official who told him his first priority should be to the members of the bureau. "I thought, this guy feels confident enough that he can come and talk to the chief (about loyalty). That's how strong that cultural pull is in that organization. I don't think it's any different today than it was when I was chief. In many ways, it's probably hardened."

As Portland gets ready to test out a recent voter-approved police oversight board, Potter says calls to reimagine the bureau have sprouted up before. He's long been an advocate of referring to cops as peace officers, rather than police officers.

In the late 1980s, he helped craft a community policing plan. They tapped a handful of Portland State University professors and a committee that "put the community in the driver's seat," as he recalls.

Anti-bias training

The current chief, Chuck Lovell, might not share the same critical assessment, but says he and Potter agree on a few fundamental things.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell   "Tom and I are both believers in community policing. I've always thought of this career in terms of 'service' instead of just enforcement," Lovell said. "I believe the best way to approach this work is with a servant's heart."

Potter said police departments desperately need to hire more officers of color and officers whose lived experiences reflect those of the people they're tasked with serving. Beyond that, he suggests more anti-racism and cultural competency training is needed within the Oregon police training department.

Lovell said those changes already are afoot.

"For many years, officers have annually received culturally responsive training," Lovell said. "For nearly a decade the Police Bureau has undergone major reforms in areas related to mental health, use of force, training, policy, accountability and community engagement."

Chief Lovell also points to ABLE training, which teaches officers how to effectively intervene if they witness misconduct from their peers. Lovell said these steps will "increase transparency and build community trust."

"Those reforms continue," Lovell said, "and the bureau will constantly strive to open ourselves to community input and review and to act to implement change."

Mayor Ted Wheeler's office echoed Lovell's comments, saying concepts of equity, procedural justice and implicit bias awareness are already "baked into police training." Jim Middaugh, Mayor Wheeler's chief communications officer, said PPB also sponsors classes on the history of racism, ethics, and "youth educating police," which helps officers learn how to connect with young people.

But even with such training in place, people of color still account for a disproportionate number of police stops, recent data released by the bureau showed. The latest data from 2019 shows Black people accounted for 18% of PPB's traffic stops, despite accounting for less than 6% of the city's population. In 2005, while Potter was mayor, Black people accounted for 13% of police traffic stops.

Moreover, the data showed that drivers who were perceived to be Black/African American were asked to consent to a search at twice the rate of all other perceived racial groups.

Middaugh said that while much of Potter's vision of community policing is already in place, PPB is staring down significant challenges.

"The Police Bureau embraces community policing and has for decades. We all agree it's a great approach," Middaugh said. "The challenge is, effective community policing requires people and money, both of which are in high demand given the Police Bureau's vast range of responsibilities and recent budget cuts.

"Portland Police work hard to maintain community relationships. It's particularly challenging now because we have fewer officers today than we've had for quite some time, the bureau is facing a spike in demand because of the pandemic and political unrest and public health requirements make it less safe for police to have face-to-face interactions with people in the community."

A condensed version of this story appeared in the February print edition of The Connection.


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