The Portland Police Department’s disparate rate of arresting black people fits a national and historical trend in which minorities are over-represented in the criminal justice system at all levels, from arrest to prosecution to prison time, criminal justice experts said.

But data released by the department last week is too limited to understand why police here arrest black people at a rate more than twice what the black population in the city might suggest, they said. That would require the department to collect and analyze more data, and invest in a study to hear from individuals who were arrested and learn what led them to their interaction with police.

“The kind of statistics that (Portland police) sent can only tell us what a phenomenon looks like, it can’t tell you why it looks that way,” said Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, a former prosecutor and a retired professor emerita from John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the school of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration. Jones-Brown is currently a practitioner at the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven school of criminal justice, and has spent 30 years studying, writing and teaching about race, policing and the American justice system.

Further investigating the disparity would cost more time and resources, and likely would mean teaming up with researchers from outside and interviewing people who were arrested, Jones-Brown said.

“We have to look at more than just the arrest and citation data. What are the underlying behaviors in these arrest or citation statistics? And then there is an obligation, if a police agency really wants to understand why, to join up with a university or another group, some external source,” she said. “There has to be some talking to the public, and not just pieces of the public. You have to talk to people who are arrested and who are cited the most. Only from sifting through that more detailed information can we make some accurate conclusion about what’s driving those numbers.”

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said he is open to undertaking a deeper investigation of the city’s arrest and citation data and plans this week to inquire about bringing in outside experts to help the department make sure it is asking the right questions and gathering the best information to make decisions. Clark has touted the rigorous hiring and training standards of the department, and its long-term commitment to de-escalation and nationally recognized best practices. But he was cautious about naming the disproportionate arrest of black people a problem before the department can gather more information.

“I would certainly say that the disproportionate nature of the arrest and citation data warrants more questions, but knowing our policies and people, I can’t make the assumption or say that there is a ‘problem,'” Clark said in prepared responses to written questions. “We need to know what the appropriate questions are to ask. What is the appropriate denominator to assess disproportionality? Our plan was to conduct annual bias-based policing reviews and analyses, so this will be a jump off point for that work.”

Clark said the bias-based policing evaluations will go forward in 2021 and were planned before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, which touched off hundreds of protests in cities across the nation and the world demanding an end to systemic racism and unjust police killings of black and brown people. The reviews will include evaluations beyond race, including gender and age, he said, as those are also classes of people protected by law against discrimination.

The data describes five years of arrests and citations, broken down by age, gender and race. But the information is limited, and does not include combinations of those variables that might help uncover more information about the disparity.

The data the city released also does not show whether the people arrested live in Portland or are from other communities, for example, or how many people were arrested more than once in that time period. The data does not show how many traffic stops occurred, whether the stop resulted in further action, or what the age, race and ethnicity of the person stopped may have been.

Although black people made up 7 to 8 percent of the city’s population from 2016 through 2019, they represented nearly 17 percent of arrests last year. Earlier years showed even greater disparities. In 2018, black people accounted for 17.5 percent of the arrests. In 2017, it was 23 percent, and in 2016, 21 percent of the arrests were of black people.

In comparison, white people made up 84 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2019 Census, and accounted for 81 percent of the arrests in 2018 and 2019, 79 percent in 2017, 76 percent in 2016 and 78 percent in 2015. Citations were similar, ranging from 80-84 percent during the same period, according to the city’s statistics, which categorize people as black, white, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian/Pacific Islander or unknown.

City Councilor Pious Ali said he also wants a deeper examination of the data released by the police.

“I believe that the men and women of the Portland police want to serve their city, want to do their best,” Ali said. “But all of us are working in a system that has been set up for hundreds of years to disproportionately affect black people. It’s good data, but it’s raw data. I want to see more. I also think the data is a reflection of (not) just our police department, but I think the whole system needs to be re-evaluated.”

Ali said he would support an independent research process, not only to lend subject-matter expertise, but to bring credibility to the process. It’s also why he’s asked for an independent review of the conduct of Portland police and other agencies that provided mutual aid during a tense faceoff between officers and demonstrators near the Portland police station on June 1 that resulted in 23 arrests.

Hundreds of people take a knee outside the Portland police station on June 2, protesting against racism and police brutality. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Disaffected people who already do not trust the city government process or the police are not likely to show up at a city hearing, Ali said.

“There is no amount of money that I would consider too much, because it’s a just reason,” Ali said of the outside investigation he’s requested. “It’s for the betterment of our city, it’s for the betterment for our citizens. It doesn’t matter what the resources are. It’s worth it.”

The high rate of black arrests mirrors national statistics, which show that black people are at a greater risk of being arrested than white people and are over-represented in the criminal justice system at every stage. In 2018, black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all the people arrested in the U.S., but represented only about 13 percent of the population, according to FBI crime data.

In a historical sense, the ideal of racial equality in policing is relatively new, Jones-Brown said.

From the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the emancipation of the slaves, through decades of lynchings, segregation and Jim Crow laws that ended with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there is an unbroken, roughly 345-year track record of local governments using police power to control black people, and the corresponding expectation by white society that police, when called, will exercise that control.

“Any time you have a society that talks about freedom and liberty, but gets a population to accept less than that for more than 100 years after the end of enslavement, there’s power in that,” Jones-Brown said. “So people come with an idea that the way you get black people to ‘act right’ is to employ punitive measures. And we are not any more creative about that.”

The earliest police forces in the United States were slave patrols, Jones-Brown said. After emancipation, southern states acknowledged some legal rights granted to freed former slaves, but criminalized unemployment and gave local police the power to arrest and imprison black people with scant pretext.

In the northern states, the first full-time, municipally accountable police department formed in Boston in 1838, and other large metropolitan areas followed. Historians trace the origin of urban police work not to fighting crime as we understand it today, but to quelling “disorder” and enforcing “the collective good,” often at the behest of wealthy industrialists who sought social control over their workforce, and often deployed police to break up labor strikes, according to Dr. Gary Potter, the associate dean at Eastern Kentucky University’s school of Justice Studies who has written extensively about policing.

“The suggestion was that public drunkenness, crime, hooliganism, political protests and worker ‘riots’ were the products of a biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled and uneducated underclass,” Potter writes. “This underclass was easily identifiable because it consisted primarily of the poor, foreign immigrants and free blacks.”

The approach to crime control focused on a “dangerous class” of people rather than the social and economic conditions that can contribute to criminal behavior, Potter said.

Those same harmful social and economic conditions persist today, and remain factors that lead to crime in the first place, said Paul Ashton, the director for Organizational Impact at the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“I think the challenge with some of this stuff – and this is the conversation that’s emerging nationally over defunding and abolition (of police) – is you can’t dissect what’s happening in the police department separate from what’s happening in investment in communities,” Ashton said. “In a lot of jurisdictions we’re OK cutting certain things and not others.”

Barriers to quality education, health care, mental health services, affordable housing and good-paying jobs are significant factors in who becomes involved in the justice system, Ashton said, and research shows that those conditions disproportionately impact communities of color across the country.

“I think there’s been an increasing buy-in on the notion of mass-incarceration, that we’re putting too many people in prison, but I don’t think people have really digested what that means on the front end, in terms of policing,” Ashton said.

Police departments have traditionally been the backstop where state and municipal budgets fall short, meaning police are the first to respond to social problems, be it homelessness, mental health care, crisis intervention, civil disputes or substance abuse, Ashton said.

“You cannot expect one person or one profession to fulfill all of these roles,” Ashton said.

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