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October 8th, 2003 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

BLACK AND BLUE

Can Portland's new police chief calm the community where he grew up?

     
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The Emmanuel Church of God in Christ United, a small white house near Northeast 30th Avenue and Alberta Street, is filled with song and joy. The 10-member Emmanuel Gospel Choir rips through a rousing rendition of "Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow," accompanied by 15-year-old drummer Charles Tellis.

Mother Maggie Wright steps up to the lectern. Dressed in a conservative navy skirt-suit, a tan shirt, and a bright blue hat topped with a veil and a brace of white feathers, she is a commanding figure

"I'm so Godly proud of the accomplishment that my son has made," she says, peering through thick, tinted glasses. "He grew up in the community. He has a good value system, and he deserves that post. But he needs your help."

"Amen!" says the appreciative, mostly black audience of three dozen parishioners,

"If it wasn't for the police, we wouldn't even be able to walk down these streets," she says. "So don't tear them down--support them."

"Amen!"

"He will do what's best for this city and this community."

"Amen!"

It's a good thing people are praying for Derrick Foxworth. He'll need all the help he can get.

When he was named Portland's chief last month, just hours after the ouster of Mark Kroeker, he took over a bureau battered by a rash of headlines so damaging that City Commissioner Jim Francesconi declared that the situation had reached "crisis" proportions.

Despite the support voiced by his mother's small congregation, Foxworth oversees a bureau that has lost the confidence of many Portlanders, particularly black residents, who feel officers are immune from any internal punishment when they screw up.

Relations are "absolutely" the worst they've been in many years, says longtime activist Jo Ann Bowman. "There's this mindset within the Police Bureau that the streets really are theirs," she says, "and we only get to be on them if it's OK with them."

Many officers, meanwhile, fear that Foxworth--a tough disciplinarian with strong ties to the city's African-American community--will cave in to public pressure, adopting reforms that could put cops in danger.

"He's always been a bit of a politician. And he does have pluses because he's familiar with the minority community," says retired Sgt. Neil Crannell. "But the problem will come when he goes against their wishes: That will be the true test of how he'll do as chief."

Foxworth's ascension to the top job was sealed on May 5, when a white officer named Scott McCollister shot and killed a black woman named Kendra James, who was attempting to drive away from a routine traffic stop with the officer stuck in her car.

James' death set off a wave of protest, led by the Albina Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of African-American clergy. "In my seven years here, the pot has been boiling," says the Rev. LeRoy Haines, an alliance member. "And with the Kendra James shooting, the top of the pot flew off."

Sgt. Harry Jackson, an African-American officer who's been on the force for 24 years, agrees that the shooting released a wave of pent-up anger. "It's gotten really bad," he says. "It's more than just Kendra James."

Suddenly, then-Chief Kroeker found himself in a no-win situation. After reviewing the incident, Kroeker proposed a long unpaid suspension for McCollister. The union screamed that it was politically motivated and excessive.

Black activists, meanwhile, demanded McCollister be fired. The ministerial alliance called the investigation of the James shooting a "cover-up."

Kroeker, informed that his days were numbered, quit, leaving Foxworth to clean up the mess.

"He's inheriting a situation that Kroeker was terminated for not being able to [handle]," says retired Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Noelle, a former Portland police captain. "I think there's a huge expectation of what needs to be done, and Derrick is not going to get a honeymoon."

Foxworth isn't Portland's first black chief, but he's the first to know what it's like for an African-American man to grow up in the whitest big city in America. (Charles Moose, chief from 1993 to 1999, came to the bureau from North Carolina.)

He grew up in Portland, seven blocks from what later became the Police Bureau's Northeast Precinct headquarters. He and his twin brother, Darrell, were raised as straight arrows, and the Benson High School yearbook shows they neither joined clubs nor played sports. "We were always working," explains Darrell, now an FBI agent in San Diego.

But even law-abiding, wage-earning black kids were not spared unwanted attention from the largely white Portland police force.

Foxworth recalls one year when every time he drove past the corner of Northeast 22nd Avenue and Ainsworth Street, the same officer would be there waiting and, claiming some violation or other, would pull him over to search him and his car.

While Foxworth downplays his early contacts with the police, Terri Dennis, his ex-wife, says they bothered him. "He was harassed by the police when he was a teenager," says Dennis, who began dating Foxworth when he was 17. "He used to complain about it, say it was unfair. I think one of the reasons he became a cop was to try and make a difference in that."

If so, he faced a daunting task. In March 1981, shortly before he joined the bureau, two white cops, in a feud with a black business owner, tossed dead, bloody possums on the doorstep of his business in Northeast--a move widely viewed as a racist act of retaliation.

Four years later, tensions between cops and black Portlanders grew when a young African-American security guard, attempting to break up a fight, was killed by white officers who put him in a choke hold.

The Police Bureau does not keep records going back that far, but according to the new book by Moose, Three Weeks in October, the bureau at that time had only "about 40" black cops in a force of more than 800. Today Portland has just 37 black cops on a force of 1,013.

Jackson, who joined the force a year before Foxworth, says it was, and remains, tough to be a black cop in Portland. "It's overwhelming," he says. "You have to be an extremely strong individual to keep your focus on what you're here for."

Nor did earning a badge make Foxworth immune to police scrutiny. His longtime partner, Rod Beard, describes a time in the mid-'80s when they were undercover and driving an unmarked car on Powell Boulevard near Southeast 82nd Street.

When a Clackamas County deputy driving in front of them saw the two black men in his rearview mirror, he immediately slowed down well below the speed limit, then pulled them over. "He said we were acting suspicious, but he never clarified what that meant," recalls Beard. "I didn't appreciate it and I told him so."

Foxworth, for his part, downplays such incidents. "The problem is this: You have to honestly know what is in that person's mind as to why they stopped that individual."

Figuring out how Foxworth will balance his personal experiences with his new duties is difficult. It requires getting inside his head--which, as his ex-wife knows, is a nearly impossible task.

"He's always been very guarded," Dennis says, adding that he has become more so as he has pursued his longtime ambition of becoming chief. Given the vicious internal politics of the Portland Police Bureau, Dennis says, "If nothing else, that's the way he protects himself."

For instance, Dennis believes Foxworth is much more aware of racial profiling than he lets on. "When Derrick and I lived in Gresham, our son would get stopped once a month or more coming come from high school--for no reason," she says.

"We've had this discussion," she says. "I think he sees it, but I don't think he'll talk about it to the press."

Later, however, she laughs when told of some cops' fears that Foxworth will play favorites inside the bureau or, externally, bend to the will of Northeast Portland.

"He's always struck me as this type of person: If his mother broke the law, he would arrest her," she says. "He would feel sorry about it, but he would arrest her. He is a by-the-book person."

Though Foxworth has never arrested his mother, he did once pull her over.

It was 20 years ago, when Foxworth was a patrolman in Northeast Portland. His mother passed her son, who was driving the opposite direction in his squad car. He whipped the cruiser around, hit the lights and pulled her over. In a slightly indignant tone, she tells what happened next: "He told me I was driving too fast."

What would have been a humorous episode for most cops was just a routine stop for Foxworth. So routine, in fact, that in an interview in his new office, he says he doesn't remember it. But, he admits, it sounds very possible. "She does tend to drive at an accelerated speed," he explains in a serious tone.

Foxworth's loyalty to the law also was apparent to his coworkers when he joined the drug unit.

He would don a disguise, either a wig or a neck brace, then walk up the door of crack houses near Northeast Alberta Street, his own neighborhood, to buy drugs. Then he would arrest the folks inside, often people he grew up with.

While these busts impressed his fellow cops, they apparently were tough on the young officer.

"He came to visit me one night after doing that," recalls his mother. "He talked a lot about how sad it made him. Some of his classmates were involved. And it pained him to see children without food."

As a black cop in Northeast Portland, Foxworth had to develop a hard shell.

"I have been called Uncle Tom by people of my own race," says Foxworth. "They call you a sellout, and they say you're with the Man and you're no longer concerned with what happens to black people.

"And it's like: 'No, I am concerned. That's why I chose this profession.' And: 'No, I'm not a sellout. If there's a problem that exists between government and the police and the community, then you've got to get involved.' That's what I did."

That involvement has sometimes led to criticism. In 1998, for example, a group of Northeast residents were refused a permit for a birthday party for Daniel Binns, a popular former drug dealer in the neighborhood. The group, which claimed Binns had been targeted because he was black, marched on Chief Moose's house on Northeast Going Street. They were dispersed using beanbag rounds from riot-control shotguns--and the order to shoot was given by Foxworth.

While some activists remember the episode with bitterness, Foxworth has few regrets.

"If you have a beef with the Police Bureau or the city, you go to the City Hall or the Police Bureau," he says. "You don't go to a person's house and try to threaten them, intimidate them and try to cause a confrontation.

"That was wrong."

Baruti Artharee, an African-American man who serves as director of diversity for Providence Health, is a former activist who used to live down the street from Foxworth in Northeast. "In the community," he says, "Derrick's reputation is that he may not say what you want to hear, and he may not agree with you. But he is someone who really listens and who can be trusted."

Bowman agrees that Foxworth has a lot of credibility. "Community members feel very comfortable stopping him in a grocery store, walking up to him and asking him something," she says. "They know he'll talk to them, and I think that's a big plus."

On a recent Friday night, Foxworth's new relationship with his old neighborhood looked like it would be very tough-love.

Sgt. Mike Fort was overseeing Operation Neighborhood Relief--in cop lingo, a "saturation mission." Foxworth handed Fort four extra cops that night to work the neighborhood in uniform, to send a message to miscreants that things are gonna change. Two neighbors out on their porch near Northeast 6th Avenue and Jarrett Street are glad to hear it, saying a four-block area nearby has become a magnet for drug-dealing.

"We've lived here for three years, and the last eight months have gotten out of control," says Tom Yorter, who described a constant stream of car and foot traffic cruising for dealers. "We've confronted them, we've begged them, we've pleaded with them."

Indeed, Northeast Portland has seen a jump in drug dealers and hookers plying their trade in the streets, as well as other crime and gang-related violence. According to the bureau, aggravated assaults in the precinct this year jumped 11 percent. Car thefts and break-ins are up 30 percent. And there have been seven homicides already, compared with three at this time last year.

Fort, a tall, mustachioed, thoughtful white guy in the midst of training for the Portland Marathon, has a list of five hot-spots, and the plan is to spend a lot of time contacting people for small violations, such as riding without a light or nuisance littering. "It may seem chippy to some people," concedes Fort. "But I'm talking to the neighbors out there, and they want the crime to stop."

Most of the people Fort contacts on this evening are black. Outside a liquor store, he busts a 15-year-old who's carrying more than a gallon of liquor. Sgt. Jackson, who's also on the scene, tells the kid's friends, sitting at the bus stops, that if they don't stop loitering, they will be ticketed.

"There's a new sheriff in town!" Jackson bellows at them. "Do you get what I'm saying? Everything changes NOW!"

Fort approaches a 27-year-old black male who's riding a small motor scooter with no helmet.

"This is just harassment!" says the man in disbelief. "Other people don't get tickets for helmets!"

"Let me tell you why," says Fort. He explains that shots were fired nearby tonight, the second time in a week. Cops are trying to get a handle on things. "I'm not going to ticket you," he says, "But you need to know that if you're in this neighborhood and you're not wearing a helmet, you're going to get pulled over and may be ticketed."

Once Fort shows respect, the two men make peace. "All right, I understand now," says the scooter rider. "I see that you weren't harassing me."

Later, at the corner of Northeast 6th Avenue and Shaver Street, two large men sit in the shadowy porch of a nearby house--one that neighbors say is the epicenter of drug activity. Jackson, who has become an institution in Northeast, yells, for all to hear, "These two 260-pound men here, why they don't do anything to save their mother's house, I don't know. All these guys want to do with their time is take this 80-year-old woman's house down!"

Jackson later complains, "We have to fight the community in order to protect it."

This, says Foxworth, is his idea of "community policing"--a term that gets used a lot even though no one really seems to know what it means.

"It is a philosophy," he says. "It's how you treat citizens, it's how you interact with citizens, that every traffic stop that you conduct, every citizen contact, every call that you go to you are an ambassador from the Police Bureau and the city of Portland."

He thinks this approach will cut down on complaints of rudeness and racism. But even as he challenges his officers to do a better job, Foxworth clearly plans to challenge the community to do more than just complain.

"You can't blame everything on the police or on the government," he says. "You have a responsibility to be involved and to do what you can to make your community better. And I think that's the role that I think the leaders of the minority community must take on."

Pressed for specifics, Foxworth pauses.

"I wouldn't mention names, but I think there's some that do a much better job than others," he says. "And there's some that need to quit finger-pointing and say, 'What can we do to help you?'"

His vision of shared responsibility is not limited to the black community. In his first public appearance, he signaled his intention to hold the media accountable, saying reporters need to tell the whole story of what police do, not just the bad parts.

Most important, sources say, Foxworth and his second-in-command, Assistant Chief Stanley Grubbs, are also holding bureau managers to a higher standard, demanding better report-writing and record-keeping.

And as for officer misconduct, Foxworth bears a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian. After the Kendra James shooting, he recommended firing McCollister, the cop who shot her, informed sources say. And this was not unprecedented: Reportedly, he sought far steeper discipline for the cops who were accused by a citizens' grand jury of a "cover-up" after failing to investigate the savage beating of a man outside a downtown nightclub by two-off-duty cops in January 2002. In 2001, a source says, he favored disciplining the officers involved in the controversial killing of a Mexican man, Jose Mejia Poot, who charged at them in a mental-health facility.

So it seems that Foxworth's approach could change what a consultant in August described as the bureau's institutional reluctance to look critically at itself. The report blasted the PPB's handling of officer-involved shootings between 1997 and 2000, recommending major reforms in how they are investigated, as well as increased civilian oversight.

Foxworth has historically been among the bureau managers who are most committed to a measure of civilian review. And when asked about officers' fears that he will be harsh on discipline, Foxworth makes scant effort to deny it.

"I expect a lot of myself, and I expect a lot of the people who are part this organization. I believe that officers should maintain the highest standards of conduct. But I also believe in being fair."

Fairness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, the officers' union, is optimistic that the new chief can be reasoned with. "I can understand why officers would have concerns about a new chief," King says. "I would say to them, 'Let the process work.'"

As for reforms, "The reality is the changes are going to happen," says King. "So we have to find a way to be part of the process that leads to change. What I would like to see in the months ahead is for us to work together in pursuing changes that are good for officers and good for the community."

Finding that middle ground has proved elusive in Portland, but retired officer Loren Christensen, who worked with Foxworth in the gang unit, sees hope in the new chief. "If anyone can walk that fine line between what the community wants and what the officers want, I think he can," he says.


The Church of God in Christ is a predominantly African-American strain of Pentecostalism containing elements of evangelism and charismatic healing.

 

 

Longtime cops say Derrick Foxworth has next to no skeletons in his closet. The big exception was his involvement in the 1997 cell-phone scandal, in which he racked up $2,000 in personal phone calls.

 

At Benson Polytechnic High School, Foxworth was viewed by some as humorless and grade-driven

 

 

According to a recent report from the city's Independent Police Review division, complaints alleging officer misconduct are up 48 percent. The new figures reversed a three-year trend in which complaints dropped steeply.

 

 

Ex-Chief Charles Moose, in his book, Three Weeks in October, described a "natural hostility" in 1980s Northeast Portland, based on the fact that most cops were white and most suspects black. Moose wrote that "police behavior exacerbated that hostility."

 

 

The word most often used to describe Foxworth is "micromanager."

 

 

Foxworth's son, Derrick Jr., is now 22 and joined the Portland force last month. Like all new officers, he must complete a rotation of different jobs before getting permanently assigned to a precinct or division.

 
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