In the early morning hours of May 5, Kendra James troubled life ended when a single 9mm bullet tore through her body. The bullet came from a Glock pistol fired by Scott McCollister, 27 year-old police officer involved in a routine traffic stop. From these basic facts arise a sorry tale that leaves Portlanders unwilling witnesses to yet another deadly malfunction of the Portland Police Bureau.
In the weeks that have followed her death, we have seen a growing list of questions brought forward by the community and the media. Why did the police leave James unattended in the car in which she was a passenger if they intended to arrest her on old warrants? When James attempted to leave the scene in her car, why didnt the police let her go and arrest her at a later time in accordance with bureau policy? If they felt it was necessary to remove her from the car, why didnt they take the keys out of the car ignition?
Then there are the more troubling questions. Why did this traffic stop happen in the first place? Why was James handcuffed after being shot, and left unattended at the scene while officers put up crime scene tape? Why did the officers fail to administer first aid? (The horrifying answer is that they thought she was faking.) Why did officers attempt to scare away witnesses? Why were the officers involved in James death not interviewed by detectives at the scene? Why were the officers allowed to speak with each other including having dinner together before making any statements to their supervisors or to internal affairs?
You wont find the answers in the institutional response to the death of Kendra James. So far, that institutional response has been very predictable and woefully inadequate.
To no ones surprise, District Attorney Terry Schrunk kept his departments record intact. The DA has never convened a grand jury that indicted a police officer. This grand jury either never heard or was cautioned about the witnesses who contradicted police accounts. They were, in Schrunks words to the Albina Ministerial Alliance pastors who met with the DA after the grand jury, lacking credibility because they had criminal records.
Police Chief Mark Kroeker, trying to get ahead of the curve, showed up in the editorial pages of the Oregonian suggesting the whole incident was due to a failure to communicate. As in each case where the bureau has run off the tracks, our chief has called for a complete review of policies and procedures. It is unclear how much review the citizenry can bear. (To his credit, the chief did call the FBI in to investigate possible civil rights violations.)
Mayor Katz, meanwhile, is hoping to avoid a community meltdown like the one that occurred following the May Day 2000 police riot. Shes offering up a community review, date and content as yet unspecified. Like most politicians, she sees doing nothing as less risky than taking an action she might not be able to undo later.
Meanwhile the questions continue to grow and community anger continues to rise. As the front page of this issue shows, over 2,200 angry Portlanders turned out on May 24 to demand answers. The members of the Albina Ministerial Alliance that organized this event are calling for the firing of Officer McCollister. They, along with State Senators Margaret Carter and Avel Gordly, are also calling for the revision of state law regulating the use of deadly force. They also seek some opening up of the grand jury system access to tape transcripts of the proceedings, for example.
These are all reasonable requests to make, but they fall far short of a program for the institutional changes necessary to make another incident like this one very unlikely if not impossible. If we are to achieve the latter, we must begin coming together as a community to discuss what that program should look like and how we go about enacting it. Much of the program has surfaced in the past as the community has lurched in reaction to the latest police atrocity. Now is the time to put the pieces together in a way that will create real police reform. Some of those key pieces are:
Modification of the grand jury system. The English who created the system rid themselves of this archaic institution over half a century ago because of its potential to create prosecutorial abuse. At the very least, we need to open up the secret proceedings so important information for bringing about justice isnt buried.
Independent Civilian Police Review. Unlike the current Independent Police Review Division, a truly independent civilian police review board empowered to review shootings and death-in-custody cases, as well as mandate policy changes, would provide a real community vehicle for change. A transparent, speedy, community-based process would go far in healing the many deep wounds the police have inflicted on our community. In the long run, it would help weed out the violent and racist officers who are bringing disgrace on the vast majority of officers who truly want to serve the public.
A police commission. Absent the total overhaul of the city government structure, the creation of a commission is the next best step in helping de-politicize the police. At present, one city commissioner is responsible for the bureau and all the political risks that entails, including going up against the reactionary Police Benevolent Association (and if you dont think PBA is reactionary, I suggest you read the current issue of The Rap Sheets commentary on peace protesters). A police commission with community representation could democratize control of the police as well as better make the tough choices that need to be made to reform the bureau. Such a commission could also serve as home to a review board, getting that structure out from under the auditors officer, where a clear conflict of interest exists.
Community-driven community policing. As the City Club noted last month, community policing is nearly dead in Portland and Mark Kroeker is the leading suspect. Rather than revive the chiefs effort to turn community policing into his own snitch network, we need to develop a community-driven form of policing that not only gets the cops out of their cars but shifts public safety away from the shoot em up antics we now see so tragically deployed in our streets and towards a preventative, non-violent method in which the police are just one of many problem-solvers working under the communitys direction.
Make the District Attorney an elected position. At present, District Attorney Mike Schrunk is insulated from public pressure. The result has been an office which has housed prosecutors who tell racist jokes at cocktail parties and yell obscenities at peaceful protesters. This lack of public accountability has also resulted in an office where skin color plays a far larger role than evidence in putting people behind bars. While theres no guarentee an elected DA would behave differently, we know how well the current system works.
Taken together, the above steps along with the changes demanded by the pastors, makes for what could be far-reaching reforms. While it would require working at the state, county and local levels, such an integrated approach could help transform community unrest into a real movement for reform.
Obviously, it will take more than the 2,200 people who turned out on May 25. And it will take more than what the pastors can bring to the effort, too. To bring about this level of change it will be necessary to get serious about creating a diverse social justice movement built around community organizing, lobbying, electoral politics, and civil disobedience.
That is a tall order but not beyond the capabilities of the
progressive community in this city if that community is willing to
reach out beyond its own borders.
Theres certainly a number of existing organizations that could help on that count. The Pacific Green Party, which continues to seek out local campaigns, should be bringing their numbers into play. So too, should Portland Peaceful Response Coalition and the broader Cascadia Peace and Justice Coalition organized during the Iraqi war.
Will there never be another Kendra James incident if all these
steps are achieved? Of course not. So long as we live in an economic system
that deprives the many while enriching the few, our society will be torn by
violence. Working to bring about these structural changes, however, offers
us the opportunity to build a movement that can eventually take on those larger
inequities. It is through struggle and only through struggle
that we can build a movement capable of changing our world. By taking this
struggle to the streets now we can do just that and bring justice to Kendra
James. So what are we waiting for?
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: August 4, 2003