Eugene Weekly : News : 7.3.08

Equal Protection
Two gatherings examine the role of police
by Ted Taylor

What do Eugeneans think about their cops? Do people feel safe in their homes and on the streets? What can citizens do to improve relations with police officers? And what can the Eugene Police Department (EPD) itself do to mend damaged relations?

Two public gatherings in two days last week focused on public safety in Eugene and asked these basic questions.

The Brewhaha forum sponsored by the Bus Project and Eugene Weekly June 26 and the City Club of Eugene luncheon June 27 were in response to the latest string of controversies involving Eugene police: the use of Tasers on a demonstrator, federal agents involved in local demonstrations, hateful messages from police union leadership, a legal attack on the new independent police auditor and ongoing accusations of police discrimination and harassment.

“I don’t feel safe regarding the police and DA who are the very people with whom we place our public trust,” said broadcast journalist Amy Pincus Merwin at Brewhaha. “I don’t feel safe because I have personally witnessed police use of excessive force and have been a focus of police and DA harassment.”

“I expect law enforcement to protect citizens from harm and treat all citizens with respect, regardless of their background, social or economic status in our community or any other personal attribute or distinction,” said Merwin.

Speakers in addition to Merwin included Samantha Chirillo, co-director of Cascadia’s Ecosystem Advocates; DJ Depew of the Oregon Family Support Network Board; Talia, Lotus Blossom and Nathan from the Lane County Youth Action Board; and Sharla Gilliam of the Network Charter School. Assistant Police Auditor Dawn Reynolds also spoke, along with Davis’ Restaurant co-owner Tom Kamis. 

Kamis, a longtime downtown resident, said he has never had a problem with the EPD and considers downtown safe. He lived in Detroit as a youth. “I’ve seen bad, and this doesn’t seem so bad,” he said. 

Reynolds, an attorney who’s only been on the auditor’s staff for five weeks, said she is already seeing a lot of complaints from youth and people who are homeless. She said she recognizes the difficult and dangerous work done by the EPD, but added, “we expect our police officers to protect and serve the community … I’m here to ensure that everyone is treated fairly.” 

Reynolds urged the young people who believe they have been mistreated by the police to file complaints with the auditor. Stories told at the forum included a gay-bashing incident downtown in which the perpetrator was not charged with a hate crime and the victim was lectured by an EPD officer for being “too flamboyant.” Others told tales of retaliation and harassment, excessive and petty ticket-writing and a general lack of compassion and empathy by EPD officers.

Friday’s City Club program featured civil and human rights activists Carmen Urbina and Charles Dalton and County Commissioner Pete Sorenson.

“We give the cops the right to use violence and even kill in our name,” said Dalton, “and that involves a huge degree of trust.” Dalton said he recognizes the difficult and important job done by police and would even support increasing their staff by 20 percent if he were “certain they are all committed to equal protection under the law.” But he said he’s frustrated by a lack of transparency.

He’s accustomed to two answers when he questions the EPD about an incident: First, “We can’t tell you anything because it’s under investigation,” and later, “We can’t tell you anything because it’s a personnel matter.”

Dalton said he is a strong proponent of community policing in which officers spend more time connecting with the people on their beats and less time in squad cars responding to emergencies. It’s an expensive model, he said, but some steps EPD is taking in that direction are satellite stations and officers on bicycles.

Dalton also called for more cooperation and communication on both sides. “We need the police and the police need us,” he said. “They cannot do their job without our trust and our tax dollars, and that’s why we need to keep the dialogue open.”

Urbina has been tracking racial profiling and other civil rights issues involving the EPD for a dozen years and said she is concerned about whether the EPD is living up to its stated mission as a “progressive, professional policing organization that combines community policing strategies with an enforcement philosophy to better serve the more than 140,000 residents of Eugene, Oregon.”

Urbina said mutual trust and respect are the key issues in the relationship between police and the residents. “But do the cops see themselves as part of the community?” she asked. 

The solution, said Urbina, lies in whether “we have the political will and leadership to improve community-police relations. … We’ve been down this road multiple times before.”

Sorenson said it was “disturbing” that federal Homeland Security officers were involved in recent local demonstrations, “operating independently of any local or state authority.” 

Sorenson said if the police leadership won’t take responsibility and assume a strong and active role in improving relationships with the community, the community “will continue to take power away from police.” He was referring to the voters approving an independent police auditor and Civilian Review Board to watch over the police.