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March 31st, 2010 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Burning Bridges

After two fatal shootings this year, can cops regain the city’s trust?

     
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RIOT ACT: Protesters clash with police downtown March 29.
IMAGE: Ott Tammik

Brodie Lewis stood in the rain last Sunday in front of the Hoyt Arboretum office—the very spot where a Portland cop fatally shot Jackie Collins six days prior.

Lewis, a 28-year-old cabbie, came to the park for a hike. But he couldn’t help thinking of the March 22 shooting earlier that week and its aftermath—which now includes three police protests. The most recent of those erupted Monday night downtown, where eight people were arrested and three officers injured.

“I don’t think the community wants to see these cops hanged,” Lewis said. “They want some kind of reconciliation.”

But after the Jan. 29 fatal police shooting of an unarmed Aaron Campbell, Collins’ killing has built on community anger over other violent police incidents—including the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr.

City leaders now are hashing out ideas both fresh and stale for repairing that rift, especially at a time police are trying to sort through a recent spate of gang-related shootings. But some observers say the chance for healing has been lost—especially among African-Americans, who make up 6.4 percent of the city’s population.

Assistant Chief Brian Martinek told the city Human Rights Commission last week cops have “an emergency situation going on in our relations with the community.”

Admitting a problem is the first step to recovery. But in a follow-up interview, Martinek offered few ideas on how to bridge that gap other than platitudes about “continued dialogue.” He said cops have to “not be defensive”—then blamed the media for creating part of the problem.

“I would hope that you and other media sources would make sure that the reporting is balanced,” Martinek said. “When most of the attention is on these more volatile outlier cases, that is not helpful.”

But at the March 25 hearing, two human-rights commissioners told police agreement may not be possible.

“Your culture has a gun on its hip. I don’t have one,” said Commissioner Kathleen Sadaat. “If you forget that, then you forget that this is a culture clash.”

One idea floating in City Hall for overcoming that clash is to require that cops be Portland residents. There are no statistics for what percentage of cops live in the suburbs, but it’s assumed officers who live here will feel more invested in the city and less threatened when they’re on patrol.

Portland briefly adopted such a rule in the 1980s before voters repealed it. And even if the rule existed now, it’s unclear whether it would have helped Collins.

Officer Jason Walters, the cop who shot Collins, is plenty Portland. A vegan bicyclist from Southwest, his Facebook photo shows him grinning on top of a mountain. He had already been named Central Precinct officer of the month for March before the shooting.

According to police, Walters dispatched himself to a 3 pm call on March 22 about a drunken transient harassing people in the park. When he arrived, Collins emerged from a public restroom with blood on his face and hands, wielding a small razor knife.

Walters told detectives he tried to retreat but backed into an obstacle. The restroom area is enclosed on three sides, with large potted plants further obstructing the exit—an easy place to get backed into a corner. Walters said he fired two shots, and when they failed to stop Collins, he fired two more.

Collins, 58, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and the news media later descended on the shooting scene. One notable person who wasn’t there was Mary-Beth Baptista, director of City Hall’s Independent Police Review Division.

That’s worth noting—because five days before the shooting, City Council held a public hearing on an emergency ordinance proposed by Commissioner Randy Leonard to increase IPR’s oversight power. If council had listened to the dozens of Portlanders who asked it to pass the ordinance immediately, Leonard says IPR would probably have been at the scene.

Instead, council continued the hearing until March 31—and the public waited 20 hours to learn details of the shooting.

Leonard says his ordinance is one step in healing the rift between citizens and cops. Next, he plans to beef up powers of the city’s Citizen Review Committee. But officers should not pause in using necessary force to protect the public, Leonard says.

“There are those, unfortunately, who don’t like that, and I don’t want to be aligned with them,” he says. “I don’t want [police] to hesitate for a moment. Mental illness is not an excuse to harm somebody [such as an officer].”

After two fatal shootings in as many months, Leonard says there’s no talk in City Hall of replacing Saltzman as police commissioner as a way to regain public trust. Sam Adams made the unusual move as mayor of giving Saltzman oversight of the Police Bureau in January 2009 instead of taking it on himself.

“It would be a lot more difficult for a commissioner in charge of the police to propose and advocate for the things I am,” says Leonard, who originally wanted to oversee the Police Bureau. “I recognize that dynamic, and right now, I’m frankly taking advantage of that dynamic.”

News intern Ott Tammik contributed to this report.


FACT: The hearing on Leonard’s ordinance to boost IPR’s powers continues Wednesday, March 31, at 6 pm in City Hall.

 
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