The Agency That Monitors Portland Parolees Is Riven by Allegations of Racism

An independent investigator found that Multnomah County employees with too much time on their hands were getting into spats over controversial flags and racist insults.

The Multnomah County Department of Community Justice plays an often overlooked but crucial role in Portland's criminal justice system.

The agency employs more than 500 workers, with an annual budget of $106 million, to supervise people who have been released from jail or prison. It also runs the county's juvenile detention center.

The department touts itself as a national leader in progressive approaches to parole and probation.

But WW has learned that employees who work with the Change Center, a division of DCJ that runs programs for high-risk offenders, describe their office as a racist and dysfunctional shop.

An internal investigation by an independent consultant, completed in July but never previously reported, describes a workplace where parole officers fight over flags, sleep on the job and use racial insults.

More than a dozen employees told WW they work in a politically divided office where a lack of communication between supervisors and staff has exacerbated even small complaints, leading to retaliation and tension throughout the department.

Some of their complaints are serious: Several employees, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation, say a parole and probation officer once referred to his client as a "porch monkey." Employees say he still works for DCJ.

The new allegations come exactly one year after County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury vowed to reform the process for reporting discrimination, after employees across the county—including in DCJ—objected to how their complaints were handled.

"We will not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in our workplace," Kafoury said last fall. "Look at where we are in six months, and see whether we've made the changes that I'm committing to make today."

Complaints and investigation summaries from the past year obtained by WW through a public records request, as well as incidents recounted by current and former employees, suggest Kafoury has a way to go. The county says employees at DCJ have filed 45 protected-class complaints in the past 13 months.

WW recently obtained the results of the independent investigation of the Change Center, conducted in July and ordered by then-director Truls Neal.

The investigation summary details several allegations of DCJ employees making racist, xenophobic or insensitive remarks, including an employee referring to an Egyptian food cart as a "jihad money front."

At a June 26 meeting on "Mindfulness, Diversity and Appreciation," an employee said white privilege does not exist and exclaimed, "It's not 1950," while looking at a black co-worker. That remark led to the hiring of an outside investigator.

The outside investigator found in-fighting has taken root at DCJ in part because employees do not have enough work to keep them busy.

"Referrals and client attendance have created idle time which leads to excessive non-work-related conversations, sleeping, personal device use, unexplained absenteeism and a general lack of purpose on a daily basis," the independent investigator concluded.

Perhaps the most obvious display of this: a dispute surrounding an employee's flag.

Last November, an employee wrote in an email that a very large "Blue Lives Matter" flag—a black-and-white American flag with one blue stripe—above one co-worker's desk was "extremely offensive" and placed where clients could see it.

The "Blue Lives Matter" flag grew popular as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some view the flag as supportive of police officers. Others view it as racist because it suggests that police face discrimination in the same way that black or Latino people do, and because it is often used to oppose protests of police who shoot unarmed black men.

"The flag is so big, you can see it across the street," the email says.

More than five months later, an email sent to Multnomah County chief operating officer Marissa Madrigal reported the flag was still hanging in a DCJ office and "has become a shrine, with other images surrounding it."

The owner of the flag and photos tells WW she was never told about the complaints by her supervisors or human resources.

Finally, on July 26, then-director Truls Neal ordered DCJ employees in the Adult Services Division to remove any "artwork" larger than 5 by 7 inches, and restricted each cubicle to a limit of five personal photos.

Interim director Erika Preuitt, who took over the department Oct. 1, says she thinks polarized national politics is seeping into office disputes.

"National polarization is having an impact on us locally and also having an impact on us in the workplace," she says. "What we have to grapple with is how do we address that in the workplace."

Multnomah County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti says complaints led to discipline ranging from verbal reprimands to termination. The county redacted or withheld descriptions of who was disciplined, and the DCJ director would not say how many people were fired.

Kafoury says the county is taking steps to address complaints, including seeking advice from an equity expert who will be presenting recommendations to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 29.

"We have realized," Kafoury tells WW, "that only a full-court press will radically change this organization."

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