Portland Copwatch was proud to be the main hosting organization for a National Conference on Police Accountability, held October 15-17 at Portland State University with support from PSU Community for Justice. It was cosponsored by the National Coalition on Police Accountability (NCOPA), which held similar conferences in the 1990s (see PPRs #1, 4, 8, 10 &12). The event provided new and informative views on issues facing police accountability activists, and the participants left the conference with renewed enthusiasm for the tasks ahead.
[Saturday Night Vigil 
image] About 100 people attended from 10 states and at least 15 cities. Activists, review board members, survivors and families of victims, ministers, and even a police officer came. About 20 attendees went for a candlelight walk/rally/vigil which stopped at Portland's City Hall, and at the (in)Justice Center (downtown police station/jail), and walked past black-tie guests outside the ballet, who appeared variously amused, confused, or unmoved by the lively chants and songs.
In addition to the twelve workshops and the opening night panel, two videos were screened: "Every Mother's Son" (by New York film-makers, focusing on the mothers of three police shooting victims) and "These Streets are Watching," by Jacob Crawford of Berkeley Copwatch (a training video with clips of Copwatch in action in three cities).
The following reports are grouped by subject matter.

OPENING PANEL: Portland's Police Problems

The opening panel introduced the conference and gave background on the situation in Portland. Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch described the history of police misconduct over recent decades, including the rocky history of the police review board. Macceo Pettis of the Coalition of Black Men talked about the history of racism in Oregon reaching back to when it was a Territory and early state laws prohibiting African Americans from owning land. [street roots 
November 1 
coverage of conference image]
Morgan Dickerson, also from the Coalition of Black Men, spoke briefly about scandals involving Portland Police in the 1980s, including the incident in which officers dumped dead possums on the doorstep of a black-owned business, and the death of Tony Stephenson (an African American security guard mistaken for a suspect and killed by a police choke hold). Martín Gonzalez of the American Friends Service Committee related the story of José Mejía Poot, whose shooting death at the hands of the police in a psychiatric hospital in 2001 prompted a number of marches, was tied to the resignation of over half of the review board, and helped bring the Black, White, and Latino communities together. Dr. T. Allen Bethel of the Albina Ministerial Alliance wrapped up, describing specific actions taken by the AMA's Ad Hoc Coalition for Community Justice in the wake of the shootings of unarmed motorists Kendra James and James Jahar Perez in 2003 and 2004. His examples included a review of the police investigation into James' death and demands for change presented as a resolution to Council after Perez's shooting.


The panel on community response to police shootings and deaths in custody featured Michael Zinzun of the Coalition Against Police Abuse in Los Angeles, Bishop AA Wells of the AMA Ad Hoc Coalition and Regina Cardenas with Justice for Rudy in San Jose. [Bishop Wells and 
Cardenas image]Zinzun focused on the ideas of calling for independent prosecutors to handle possible police crimes, because District Attorneys rely on police in their other cases, and for punitive damages to be paid by individual officers. Bishop Wells related the work of the AMA Ad Hoc, noting that credibility comes from good work and persistence, not a "gotcha!" attitude. Cardenas, whose father was killed by a California state drug agent, made a particularly moving presentation. She shared what a family and a committed community can achieve under such horrific circumstances. In particular, their community demanded and was granted an open grand jury, which apparently has been done only a few times in California, resulting in an indictment of the officer.


A workshop on racial profiling also included Michael Zinzun and Macceo Pettis (here using his experience with the organization Oregon Uniting), adding Dulce Ruelas of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights) in Tucson and Sgt. DeLacy Davis, founder of Black Cops Against Police Brutality, an active duty police officer in East Orange, NJ. Zinzun related one success that has helped de-escalate police- citizen confrontations: "Special Order 13," which requires Los Angeles officers at any police stop to give out their business card with badge number and supervisor's name. Pettis read excerpts from an Oregon State study on racial disparity in the justice system and described programs of Oregon Uniting on cultural competency, which have been offered to police on a limited basis. Ruelas described her group's program in which volunteers explain basic rights to both documented and undocumented Latinos in Tucson, where border patrol agents often sweep through bus stops trying to find people to deport. [Racial Profiling 
panel image] Davis spoke about his struggles to speak out even within a department with many Black and Latino officers. He was involved in organizing around a major break-through case on racial profiling, where students of color headed to a basketball game were shot by New Jersey State Troopers in 1998. That case eventually uncovered documents proving that Troopers targeted people for their race.


The presentation on police violence against women of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals began with Remy Kharbanda of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (Brooklyn, NY) and Theresa Mitchell, who does a weekly program on KBOO-90.7 FM in Portland. Kharbanda connected police violence against women of color and people in the LGBT community with domestic violence issues, noting that Americans have come to depend too much on police for social services. She spoke about how police target certain areas of a city where they know people engage in consensual activities just to harass those who aren't straight or white engaging in such activities. Mitchell spoke about one transgendered individual who was humiliated and beaten by Portland police during an arrest that occurred after a protest against the US war on Iraq in March, 2003. She educated people about her own transition and noted that police need a better understanding that changing one's gender is not a "lifestyle choice." Andrea Ritchie, also of Incite!, gave a more detailed session later in the day, having been delayed in transit to the conference.


Two homeless activists and an attorney spoke about police and homeless communities in a workshop that raised questions about legislation and public policy as well as police activity. The attorney, Marc Jolin of the Oregon Law Center, noted that much of the time police are following laws that are created specifically to target the homeless, such as Portland's anti-camping ordinance (see PPR #22). Bilal Ali of the Los Angeles Community Action Network spoke about increasing numbers of such laws, including anti-urination and anti-defecation laws, as well as the destructive influence of downtown gentrification pushing police to crack down more on those who have nowhere but a cardboard box to call home. Jean Rice of Picture the Homeless described how New York's housing law ends up criminalizing those who can't get housing, forcing more women onto the streets and "destablizing a generation." On a slightly encouraging note, he reported that an officer was fired after two visitors to Penn Station complained that the officer beat a homeless man for mouthing off after being forced to leave; two other cops confirmed the story.


A panel focusing on the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) formed around the country, the criminalization of dissent, and several lawsuits dealing with these issues, was titled "Increasing Police Powers and Attacks on Activists." Lynne Wilson of the Seattle National Lawyers Guild (NLG) talked about police and bureaucratic tactics such as shutting off streets to corral and arrest demonstrators, sending out overwhelming numbers of officers, and creating complex requirements for permits as ways to discourage free speech. Paul Loney of Portland's NLG spoke about protestors who have been pepper sprayed and beaten at demonstrations in Portland. The good news, he noted, is that several laws have been successfully challenged both in County and State court, including the recently upheld decision against the "disorderly conduct" law (saying officers had too much leeway to order a dispersal and that protestors have the right to "annoy" the public so long as they don't break laws), and the similarly broad "interfering with a police officer" ordinance (see PPR #33). Andrea Meyer, legislative director of the ACLU of Oregon, focused on the JTTF in Portland, which has harassed Arabs and Muslims without cause, including the jailing of Brandon Mayfield under the guise of the "material witness" law . She also spoke of broadening powers created not only under the USA PATRIOT Act, but also by the rewriting of FBI guidelines on investigating religious, social, and political groups.


[skanner october 
20 image] A workshop on "Tasers, Torture, and Technology" examined the ongoing effects of a police scandal in Chicago and the pros and cons of the proliferating police weapon, a stun gun which discharges 50,000 volts into suspects . Mary L. Johnson and Mary Powers of Citizens Alert in Chicago brought their audience up to speed on the fallout from the case of Chicago's notorious John Burge, a police supervisor who used and encouraged tactics such as applying electrical charges to suspects' genitals and handcuffing them to radiators in the 1980s and 90s. Recently, numerous incarcerated suspects have been freed, a special prosecutor is working on charging Burge criminally, and 108 people who may have been victimized have come forward. Lynne Wilson then shared some of her research regarding the 70-plus deaths of people who have been shot with Tasers by police in the last few years, noting that many died from positional asphyxia or other factors after being Tased. Wilson spoke in favor of the use of Tasers as long as there are strict rules regarding how and when they are used, citing a study from British Columbia as the best she has seen. Audience members responded that without formal studies on long-term effects, and since police are using the devices for compliance and perhaps for torture, maybe the community should be more vocal against their use.
This issue, and the issue of "less lethal weapons" in general, was revisited in a facilitated session on the last day. In that session, participants listed weapons including pepper spray, pepper-ball guns, "bean bag" shotguns, and the high-power audio "guns" deployed at the Republican National Convention but apparently not used. It was generally agreed that just because a weapon is not a gun, the community should not jump to embrace it as an alternative to deadly force.


Civilian police review boards, which take many forms around the country, were the topic of another workshop. Panelists Denise Stone, former Vice Chair of Portland's Citizen Review Committee (CRC), and Dan Handelman described the struggle to improve Portland's police oversight system and specific elements which should be present for any board to be effective. They also discussed how the city bureaucrats in charge of the CRC are working to diminish the importance of the citizens group, leading Stone and four others to resign in 2003. The Chief Investigator in San Francisco's Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), Kevin Allen, shared a number of policy issues his office has successfully asked the Police Department to adopt, including a crowd control policy for schools that differs from that for street demonstrations. The OCC recently gained a little more power after a successful ballot initiative gave City Council members other than the Mayor the ability to appoint the Police Commission, which oversees both the OCC and the SFPD. Michael Friedman, Chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority (CRA), noted that his city's board, revived in December, 2003 after the City had defunded it, has sustained at least one allegation of misconduct in 40 percent of the cases they have heard‹but the police chief has refused to apply discipline in any of the cases.

[panel on unions 


Panelists had different suggestions on how to deal with police unions in a workshop on that topic. Rashidah Grinage, of People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO) suggested that activists should focus less on the police chief and more on the union, since their labor agreements with cities have been used to stymie the work of police review boards. On the other hand, Michael Friedman suggested that it wasn't productive to engage with the unions but to focus instead on the chief, who in Minneapolis has the actual political power to make change. He felt that in reality, when a chief claims he or she can't take action because of a union, it is just an easy "out." Sgt. Davis spoke from the perspective of an officer as well as from the perspective of a black man who had recently been racially profiled himself while driving his daughter to school. He said he had been excluded from his union for one year after he spoke out against a "white male sexist, racist, homophobic" climate in the police force. He was reinstated after a lawsuit.


One panel combined the topics of case-based work--such as following up incidents reported on a hotline and filing lawsuits--with copwatching, or on-the-street observation of police. Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality in Minneapolis described several successes resulting from dealing with individual cases and bringing the survivors of those incidents on board as new activists for the cause. Blake Horwitz, an attorney from Chicago who takes cases all over the country, spoke about how pursuing lawsuits can lead to large changes, such as in the Burge torture case, but recognized that such cases are just one piece of a larger puzzle. Andrea Prichett and Jacob Crawford of Berkeley Copwatch described how broad-based organizing, looking at the whole criminal justice process, questioning assumptions about "the system," and looking for alternatives to the justice system worked well for them. They particularly noted that younger people are not necessarily interested in engaging in processes that they see as corrupt and ineffective, and spoke about using creativity, art, block parties, and other community-building activities to make change.


Unlike the Bush administration's "Faith-Based and Community Initiative," faith-based organizing against police accountability brings into focus religious and spiritual leaders' calling to struggle for justice. The workshop focusing on this aspect of the movement included African American spiritual leaders from three communities. Rev. Charles Stovall, of Unified Organizations for Justice in Dallas, talked about bringing groups together to speak out against two deaths of two black suspects in two days. He said many community leaders were cautious of speaking out because the Mayor, City Manager, and Police Chief were all African American. Yet, by reaching out to many groups, including ministerial organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and former legislators, they were able to focus on the police behavior and note that whatever a victim did in their past isn't justification for the police shooting them. Holsey Hickman, also of Dallas, spoke about how police tried to persuade pastors involved in dialogue with them about accountability to become snitches on the community. Gerry Cunningham of Indianapolis' Church Action for Safe and Just Communities shared his experience of more black activists coming out after shootings, even when the victims were white, and how the police oversight body in Indianapolis would fire officers for minor infractions but not for brutality or harassment. Rev. Harriett Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability described difficulties in keeping the ministers in Seattle on board for the long haul, though they did participate in actions that included shutting down the freeway after the Rodney King verdict and again after the recent shooting of an African American man accused of stealing groceries. She noted that the spirituality of activists transcends religious denominational differences.


One workshop that led to interesting dialogue focused on restorative justice and police accountability. Arwen Bird of Crime Survivors for Community Safety, based in Portland, had participants describe what they thought restorative justice might mean in this context--and nearly everyone had a different idea. Generally, they suggested: justice without vengeance, organizing in communities to diminish reliance on police, or such simple acts as having petty criminals return the items they have stolen. Bird described it as a transformative process that includes the survivors telling their stories to explain what they need, and to work toward reducing violence. Activist Joe Bean Keller of Families Affected by Violence talked about how his search for justice in the case where Portland Police shot his son in 1996 (see PPR #9) led him to look holistically at the issue, approaching the District Attorney, the City Attorney, and the Legislature as part of the way to promote a true justice system. Rev. Walden talked about educating young people and advocating for them. She noted that Seattle was the only city to hold off the so-called "weed and seed" program by questioning the amount of money going to police technology for "weeding" out the poor and people of color while "seeding" was not doing anything to empower the community.


A somewhat informal discussion featured Clare Strawn and Dalton Miller-Jones of PSU Community for Justice and Creasie Finney Hairston of the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois/Chicago talking about how academic communities can become involved in the issue of police violence. Strawn and Miller- Jones spoke about the responsibility of an urban university like PSU to become engaged in issues that matter to the community, but needing to keep the dialogue somewhat neutral to continue conversations with both local organizers and the police. Hairston noted that her work, though mostly focused on prison issues, is complemented by grassroots activists who are able to bring a more passionate voice to the table when corrections officials come to hear her researched, statistical reports. She noted that one corrections chief told her to say more positive things. She replied that's not her role, asking, "Is anything that I've said inaccurate?"--the answer was no.


At the end of the conference, Marlene Howell of the Alliance for Police and Community Accountability led one group discussion on ways to promote community responsibility while denouncing police misconduct. Another group brainstormed ideas to strengthen the national network of NCOPA. A final session shared these and other ideas that activists could work on while communicating with our colleagues nationwide and continuing to act locally.
The conference was covered by KBOO, street roots, The Skanner, and Flying Focus Video Collective, but none of the major mainstream media outlets. We were lucky to be in the beautiful, one-year-old Native American Student and Community Center at PSU.

Videotapes of the conference will be available in mid-January 2005; five tapes with 9 hours of information will cost $60 plus $7 postage (the tapes will also be available individually).
Write Flying Focus, 3439 NE Sandy Bv. PMB #248, Portland, OR 97232, email or call 503-239- 7456 for more information.

For other information call Portland Copwatch at 503-236-3065, NCOPA at 312-663-5392,
or visit www.nationalcoalitiononpoliceaccou .


Posted February 10, 2005

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