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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > August

Community's anger erupts at meeting with police

A July 1 presentation by the Portland Police Bureau left residents angrier than ever over death of Kendra James at hands of police. Community members skeptical City Hall will make institutional changes necessary to prevent repetition of James shooting.

By Dave Mazza

For many in the packed north Portland church the proceedings felt familiar. Three and one-half years earlier, newly appointed police chief Mark Kroeker tried to explain away with technical details and emotional appeals a police riot against peaceful protesters. He tried similar tactics with the residents filling the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church on July 1 to hear the police explain why they killed Kendra James. Once again, community members left angry and distrustful of the police bureau.

Equally angry and frustrated were the members of the Albina Ministerial Alliance who agreed to participate in the meeting the mayor had offered in lieu of an official coroner’s inquest. Some of the pastors serving on the community panel expressed those feelings shortly after Mayor Katz opened the meeting with the pledge that “we will listen.”

“Make note that I am frustrated, I am upset,” stated Reverend W.G. Hardy of Highland United Church of Christ. “I’m irritated with the double talk, the smoke and mirrors, and the perception that we are in agreement with the City here tonight.”

What followed did little to assuage the feelings of reverend or audience. The police panel, composed of the officers who investigated the case, District Attorney Michael Schrunk, Chief Kroeker, and representatives of other agencies involved in the investigation made a strangely lackluster presentation that offered fact without context. Those present learned the distance the vehicle traveled after Officer McCollister fatally shot Kendra James. The investigators offered the distance and position of the muzzle of McCollister’s pistol when he fired (2 feet). Investigators confirmed McCollister did not use pepper spray on James, as the officer had testified. But when pressed about what these facts meant, the police refused to engage what they considered “speculation.”

The presentation included a videotape of efforts by the investigators to ascertain how much danger McCollister was in when the vehicle containing James began moving forward. McCollister told investigators that 80 percent of his body was inside the car when he attempted to physically remove James, pepper-sprayed her, made room for another officer to shoot her with a Taser, and finally to shoot her with his Glock automatic pistol. Yet at no time during any of the five re-enactments did the investigator place 80 percent of his body inside the vehicle. He also never attempted to carry out the physical motions described by the officer. Instead, those present saw a middle-aged officer perform a backward hop with one leg and one arm inside the car as it rolled forward.

Although more than an hour of police presentation remained, Pastor Roy Tate informed the mayor and Chief Kroeker that “the community has heard enough.” Criticizing the police for what he felt was a clear effort to obfuscate, Pastor Tate demanded that the police take questions from the community for the remainder of the meeting. What ensued was a storm of questions from angry residents and frustrated community leaders that did more to illuminate the shoddiness of the police investigation than it did to explain what happened. Among the more troubling questions raised by the community that the police did not answer were:

In addition to the questions was a great amount of venting by community and the members of the community panel. People crowded the facilitators to tell their own stories about police misconduct. Rev. Renee Ward told the panel how she had been pulled over by the Port of Portland police for what is commonly called “driving while black.”

Another middle-aged African American woman described her negative experiences with Portland police under Chief Kroeker as well as with Los Angeles police with the Foothill Division when Kroeker headed up that unit. “We don’t want you in Portland or LA!” the woman exclaimed.

One of the few questions Kroeker did answer in the closing hour of the meeting brought more criticism down on him. When asked by Pastor Tate what changes he was considering, Kroeker there would be “no limit to what we’ll consider.” The chief went on to explain that he was putting Assistant Chief Lynnae Berg in charge of the review and one of her first tasks would be to visit Phoenix, Arizona where Kroeker understood they had developed policies to deal with the issues raised here. Word of another junket brought catcalls from community members who had been critical of Kroeker sending officers to a resort area in Mexico to better learn Spanish.

Answers to the specifics about Kendra James’ death weren’t the only thing missing from the July 1 meeting. Also absent was any indication that the mayor and other city leaders were prepared to consider substantive structural changes to address the problems that led to the incident. Katz promised to do what was necessary to deal with the problem, but only offered to clarify the policy about supervisors instructing officers to refrain from discussing their testimony with other witnesses prior to being interviewed by detectives. District Attorney Michael Shrunk promised to work with the Oregon legislature to amend the rules on grand juries to allow the release of a transcript immediately after the grand jury adjourns. Both spoke of a willingness to work on changing state law regarding when deadly force may be used. While none of these are bad proposals—both the change in the grand jury and the deadly force language have been proposed by the Albina Ministerial Alliance—they represent Band-Aids where intensive care is needed.

The full agenda of the Albina Ministerial Alliance and the coalition they are building around this issue remains to be seen. While one member of the coalition, Martin Gonzalez, called for an independent citizen review board at the July 1 hearing, most the pastors have limited themselves to more modest goals for the present, such as the changes in state law. But they also continue to make it clear that there is much more work to be done and they are making efforts to reach out to groups outside the African American and Latino communities. Whether they are holding back a bigger plan until there is enough of a community base to carry it forward is not known.

What is recognized by a growing number of Portlanders, including many in attendance at the July 1 meeting, is that something has to change in the way public safety is carried out in Portland—and the nation as well. While the militarized model Kroeker has helped build in Portland offers some security to downtown business interests, the social impact in the rest of the city offers up a recipe for social tensions that will do far more damage to the city than May Day protesters ever did. The time has come for bringing the police back under community control and acting in accord with community values. There is no single silver bullet to achieve this, but things such as independent civilian police review boards, police commissions responsible to the entire city council and other structural changes can create the space to organize for the deeper changes inside the institution that will bring to an end what Bishop A.A. Wells of Emmanuel Temple Full Gospel Pentecostal Church calls a “culture of permissiveness in the use of deadly force.”

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.


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Last Updated: July 31, 2003