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More groups want action over medals incident

Mental health workers and criminal justice reform activists join with the Latino community in demanding Mayor Katz to take action for Chief Kroeker awarding medals to officers who fatally shot Jose Victor Mejia Poot.

By Dave Mazza

Psychiatric mental health worker Andrew Davis wants Mayor Katz to rescind the awarding of medals of valor to Jeff Bell and Christopher Davis, the Portland police officers who fatally shot Jose Victor Mejia Poot on April 1, 2001. He and 32 of his colleagues in the mental health field delivered a letter to the mayor on Dec. 18 calling the decision to reward the officers involved in the shooting a “gross error in judgment and a severe insensitivity to individuals who experience mental illness.”

Davis and his colleagues are not alone in expressing their outrage. A week earlier, the Oregon Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a collection of groups working on criminal justice issues, called for the resignation of Chief Mark Kroeker, citing the resignation as a “necessary step to restoring Portland’s historic emphasis on community policing.”

“Portland has a long history of community involvement in policing,” stated coalition member Arwen Bird in a Dec. 10 statement. “During Chief Kroeker’s reign that emphasis has slowly dwindled.”

Both these calls for action by the mayor seem like minor aftershocks when compared to the explosion the medals incident sparked within the Latino community. On Dec. 2, over 150 members of the Latino community marched on City Hall calling for the chief’s resignation and an apology from both the chief and the mayor for their insensitivity to the community. While the demands were similar to those subsequently expressed by others, the difference was the presence not only of community activists but of an array of Hispanic elected officals and business people joining in the call for the chief’s head.

Among those present on Dec. 2 were County Commissioners Serena Cruz and Maria Steffy de Rojo, Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce CEO Gale Castillo, Mexican Consul Martha Ortiz de Rosas and local activist Martín Gonzalez. Members of the Latino com-munity were supported by leaders from Portland’s African American community, including State Senator Avel Gordly and a number of clergymen.

Cruz, who had declined to support earlier calls for the chief’s dismissal, admitted her optimism had been misplaced and called for his resignation. Following a subsequent meeting with the mayor Cruz rejected the argument that the medals were given because the officers had done the right thing according to police procedure.

“It’s about what kind of actions we want to reward,” Cruz stated.

“To present awards to the policemen who shot a Mexican national sends a very disturbing message,” stated Mexican counsel general Ortiz, who many were surprised to see involved in the protest. “This encourages officers to act in the same way.”

But calls for apologies and for Kroeker’s resignation by the Latino community fell on deaf ears. The mayor, despite the pressure, offered no explanations or any face-saving opportunities for the community leaders, choosing to stand by her controversial chief.

This comes as no surprise to some activists who have been fighting the current police administration for several years. Members of the Police Account-ability Campaign noted that while they support the calls for Kroeker’s dismissal by the various groups, the real target is the institutional structures that perpetuate outrages like the Mejia Poot incident.

“Chief Kroeker is a symptom not the disease,” states Adrienne Ratner of the Police Accountability Campaign. “There’s no framework within the police bureau to change the current culture of violence that is imposed on most officers by leadership and a handful of officers.”

At the top of the list, Ratner believes, is democratization of policing through the creation of structures like an independent civilian police review board that is capable of holding the police leadership accountable as well as changing police policies to reflect community values.

Other necessary changes include the creation of real community policing. Kroeker’s attempt to build a block-by-block informant network has failed, fortunately. But there remains the need to get officers out of their vehicles and into the neighborhoods, where they can be integrated into a system of policing that seeks to resolve community problems by means other than the use of the police whenever possible.

With Mayor Katz, in what most assume to be her final term of office and therefore beyond the reach of most grassroots pressure, unwilling to rein in her police chief, the chances of any real change happening remains slim. Which isn’t to say that Portlanders should resign themselves to current conditions. The best course now may be building a strategy for a post-Katz effort when a new mayor will be far more vulnerable to the waves of public outrage Kroeker has generated thus far and which Katz has been willing to allow to wash over her unmoved.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.


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Last Updated: December 30, 2001