Editorial: Police tactics undermine city’s work

For years, St. Francis dining hall has been more than a place to gather for a meal. It is that rare plot of serenity and community for people dealing with poverty and homelessness. That was all shattered a few weeks ago when a team of police officers entered, through opposite doors, with a camera crew from the television show “Cops” and began filming as they looked for a suspect whom they were told by staffers was not there.

Recently, people waiting in line for a meal at Blanchet House were confronted by a plain-clothes officer who began asking them to identify a person in a picture. He also asked them for their identification, and ran them through the system. They were checked for criminal activity, and one person was arrested and then released after it was found he had a warrant for failure to appear in court. Staffers there say the questioning and ID check is not uncommon for their customers waiting outside for a warm meal.

And for months, the police have targeted Sisters of the Road Café as a nuisance area, compiling complaint calls from a two-block area, which includes bars, the bus mall, and an environment well documented for drug dealing unrelated to Sisters’ 30-year operation. Police are now in negotiations with Sisters to gain concessions for access to the café and its population.

Meanwhile, officers, perched from above downtown, are on the lookout for jaywalkers and litterers of a particular ilk

It can be argued that these activities are unrelated, with different circumstances behind the situation, but the underlying message is that this is a two-class town when it comes to policing. If you don’t think so, consider what other lines of people you know that get surveyed for priors.

The sit-lie ordinance was an abhorrence to Portland because its record showed a bias toward one group of people over another, moving the poor and homeless, the undesirable, out of downtown under the presumption of their being sidewalk obstructions, even as parade viewers, sale lovers and business owners with their signboards and tables could obstruct at will.

People were not equal in its sights, and it was wrong, and so is targeting the poor as they congregate for services they need and are directed to by the very same police. The consequences are not simply unjust, they can destroy the hard-fought relationship made between service providers and the people they are charged to serve. Any outreach worker can tell you that it can take years to develop that trust and relationship, a relationship that has so much potential and demand, and one that can be shattered when vulnerability is exploited.

It is time the city brought back a street liaison within the police force. Portland used to have one; an officer that worked directly with the youths on the streets as well as with law enforcement to bring a greater understanding between the two. Because in its void, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation undermines the very principles this city espouses to end homelessness: engaging in services, connecting with programs, and, simply put, trust that there are options ahead. The lines of people in need are only going to get longer. If, while you wait you’re simply fair game, then all bets are off.

Posted by Joanne Zuhl

One response to “Editorial: Police tactics undermine city’s work

  1. Pingback: Three weeks, eight hours and what a coincidence « For those who can’t afford free speech

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