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January 28th, 2009 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Black And Blue

Gang cops say it’s OK to profile. Others call it harassment.

     
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FRISKED: Portland Police Officer Pete Mahuna pats down Isaac Nobles, 23, during a gang-enforcement mission in North Portland on Jan. 23.
IMAGE: James Pitkin

Last week, Russ Corno and Pete Mahuna, partners who normally work the day shift on the Police Bureau’s Gang Enforcement Team, got new orders.

Instead of assisting detectives investigating crimes, the Portland police officers were out patrolling areas where recent gang shootings have happened.

Police say the downtown shooting that killed two girls and injured seven other people outside the Zone nightclub Jan. 24 was a random tragedy (for more on the downtown shootings, go here). But cops say they can help defuse a less sensational danger that happens every week in Portland: gang shootings.

Corno and Mahuna are part of “Operation Cool Down,” an effort by City Hall to halt escalating violence between the Crips and Bloods after a slaying in a North Portland church Dec. 12.

Their new mission is straightforward: to contact the kind of people involved in the shootings and make a police presence felt.

Corno is frank about who they’re targeting: young black men.

“Statistics don’t lie,” he says. “You gotta go where the numbers go.”

For Corno and Mahuna, the numbers go where an exercise in community policing means walking a racial divide. Because it is, in fact, young black men who have been pulling triggers and taking bullets for the past six weeks. But Corno and Mahuna are a white guy and a Pacific Islander, respectively, whose perceptions are formed by 12 years as Portland gang cops.

Those dynamics played out riding with Corno and Mahuna on Friday, Jan. 23, from 6 pm to midnight. 

Their tactics at first drew anger and disbelief from the people they met. That reaction often dissolved after they explained their mission and traded a little street banter. But the encounter clearly left many people rattled—which police say is precisely the point.

Driving down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at 7 pm, Corno and Mahuna spot a 15-year-old black boy in a hoodie at the intersection of North Morgan Street. They’ve already passed two groups of white people without stopping. But a week ago, police had busted three gang members carrying guns two blocks away.

Corno and Mahuna pull over, get out of the car and ask the boy what he’s doing. He says he was on his way to a bus stop and is shocked when Mahuna asks him to put his hands behind his head.

“What did I do?” he says.

Mahuna pats him down for weapons, checks his ID, and asks him to show his forearms and stomach for gang tattoos. With no guns or tats, they send him on his way after a brief chat about the latest violence.

A patdown and ID check are the first things Corno and Mahuna ask of everyone they approach. Compliance is voluntary, but most people don’t seem to realize it.

Three weeks ago, Corno and Mahuna were doing surveillance in North Portland’s New Columbia villa when gunfire erupted just a block away. To protect their own safety and take weapons off the street, Corno says the patdowns make sense.

“Kids are comfortable standing on the streets holding guns because they’re not afraid of the police,” he says. “If they know every time they stand on a street corner a police car is going to drive by and talk to them, then when they get in a fight all they’ll have is fists, not guns.”

The fact it’s mainly black men they’re approaching is not a problem, Corno says. They also frisk two Latino men that night. If the mission were suppressing meth in Southeast Portland, he says, they’d target a different set of people altogether.

“Profiling—to me, I’m not scared of that word,” Corno says. “If you’re profiling people based just on their race, that is an issue. We’re profiling people based on crime.”

Police Bureau policy prohibits action based on a person’s race “rather than the behavior of an individual or information that leads police to a particular individual.”

Isaac Nobles is drinking Milwaukee’s Best Ice with three friends outside an apartment building on North Haight Street. Just around the corner on North Killingsworth Street, there’d been shots fired the night before.

As Mahuna pats him down, Nobles, 23, says it’s the second time that day they’ve been questioned by police.

“We’re prisoners in our own neighborhood,” he says. “I understand what you’re trying to do, but I’m getting tired of the interviews.”

His friend, L.B. Anderson, notes Barack Obama just became president.

“And we’re getting harassed,” he says. “What is going on in this world?”

Corno asks Nobles why he’s wearing a blue Chicago Cubs cap—a sign of the Crips—after a shooting just happened. Nobles denies he’s involved in gangs and accuses Corno of stereotyping. Another friend accuses Corno and Mahuna of denying young blacks jobs.

After five minutes of conversation, the cops resolve the tension. They leave after shaking hands, with no arrests or citations. In the end, Nobles even admits he comes from a Crip family.

“I was born into it. I am affiliated,” he says. “But I’m not the one out here doing this drama.”


FACT: Police say three people have been killed and five wounded in about 18 gang-related shootings across the city since Darshawn Cross was shot Dec. 12 in North Portland’s New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.
 
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