Hotseat: Baruti Artharee

The city's new cops czar talks about making the police safer for his grandkids.

A lot of people in City Hall have interacted with police, but Baruti Artharee may be the only one who can say he's had the business end of a cop's gun pressed against his head.

That was a long time ago, in Artharee's hometown of Compton, Calif. 

But Mayor Charlie Hales' new policy director for public safety says that kind of experience forever changes a person. 

Starting Feb. 1, Artharee, 60, will assume what will be one of the most watched roles in city government.

It's a $84,656-a-year gig that puts him squarely between the city's police commissioner, Hales; a public demanding change; the U.S. Department of Justice; and the 950-plus sworn officers of the Portland Police Bureau. 

A fixture in Northeast Portland for nearly 40 years, Artharee says he's worked  with the city's cops and knows they have a tough job. But the graduate of Linfield College and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government says the bureau has failed to correct shortcomings he noticed when he first moved here in 1974. 

Artharee brings a long résumé to City Hall. He's the former deputy executive director of the Portland Development Commission and onetime director of housing and community services for the state of Oregon and has extensive experience in the private sector as well. 

In an interview with WW, Artharee talked about leaving the Police Bureau a friendlier place for his grandsons, battling cancer and driving the anti-Prius.

WW: Why'd you take this job?

Baruti Artharee: I thought maybe I can make this a better place so if my grandkids encounter the police, it will be a more positive encounter. I have had times, as all of my family has in Compton, we've had contact with the Compton police, the LAPD or the sheriff. I've had an aggressive police officer stop me in my car and put me spread-eagle on the pavement. I've had a policeman put a gun to my head. Those are things you don't get over. 

You had your first meeting last week with Portland Police Association president Daryl Turner. How did that go?

I was impressed with Daryl Turner; he seems very professional and down-to-earth. I was struck by how much commonality he and I have. He shared with me that he grew up in Newark, N.J., and came to Portland to go to college. He was the first in his family to go to college. I thought, wow, you're telling my story. 

Some things the police have done have outraged the public, even if they're technically OK. What's your view?

I appreciate that police officers have a very tough job, and that they're asked to do a lot in terms of the mental health crisis. At the same time, we expect police officers to be accountable to citizens for their behavior. If something happens that's wrong, I'm going to speak up. 

Where will you focus this year?

Well, the No. 1 issue is the U.S. Department of Justice reforms [the result of a federal investigation into police use of force against the mentally ill]. I know the chief [Mike Reese] is trying to implement some changes to the use of Tasers. We've talked about de-escalation training and a crisis-intervention center. The union also feels that there are changes in training that should be part of the collective-bargaining process. 

Were you disappointed that the DOJ report didn't address race?

I don't know why the DOJ did not consider race. I think it would be appropriate to include race in the discussion. 

How do you think the bureau is doing now?

The first thing I'm going to do in my first 60 to 90 days is do my own personal assessment of where we are. As a private citizen, I can tell you that there's work to be done. You have the issue of cultural competence. What kind of training are we providing? We don't have to be an occupation force.

How is your health?

I'm a two-time cancer survivor. I had colon cancer in 2001 and prostate cancer in 2007. Prior to that, I had two back surgeries. For the last three years, I have consciously been working less than full time. That's allowed me to take better care of my health. I've lost weight and kept my blood pressure down. On the spiritual level, I started studying at the [Highland Christian Center] School of Ministry in 2007, which gave me a much better spiritual focus. 

As a former Portland Development Commission executive, do you plan to work with the PDC?

What I will say about the PDC is, there are some major decisions to be made regarding shrinking resources. Same thing with the Housing Bureau. I think I have enough experience in both areas to bring some ideas to the table. 

You have a sweet car. What is it?

It's a 1968 Lincoln Continental. I used to have a 1964 Impala with hydraulics, but it got stolen. So I thought, I'm going to get a car only an old man would steal.