By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer
Lew Frederick is very much aware that he is the Oregon’s only African American legislator.
Frederick is the state representative for inner north and northeast Portland. He was appointed state representative in 2009 when Chip Shields replaced State Sen. Margaret Carter, who left her Senate position to take an administrative role with Oregon’s Department of Human Services.
Frederick ran unopposed for election in 2010, and he is hitting the ground running with four bills he has introduced in the Legislature related to public safety.
The four bills are Frederick’s answer to the office-involved shooting deaths of Aaron Campbell, a mentally ill African-American man who was shot in the back in January 2010, and Keaton Otis, a 25-year old African-American man who was shot by Portland police officers in May 2010. Otis also suffered from mental illness.
Frederick is not just focused on Portland, either.
“This is not something that is uncommon across the United States,” he says in reference to the shootings. “It is part of a much larger narrative than just simply Portland, Oregon. We could have an incident take place like this in Umatilla with a Native American. We could have this take place in Ontario, with a Latino. This is not just a Portland issue.”
The first bill mandates that police-involved incidents resulting in death be investigated immediately, and by a team of law enforcement officials outside of the county the incident happened in.
The second would create a Task Force to consider adding the word “reasonable” to the definition of when it is appropriate for police officers to use lethal force.
The third bill supports changing the training police officers receive. The fourth bill would bolster community-policing programs. Frederick thinks there is a disconnect between the community and police officers that, if not solved, will continue an endless cycle of shootings and incidents similar to what happened to James Chasse, a schizophrenic man who was brutally killed by police officers in 2003, Jackie Collins, a homeless man shot and killed by a Portland police officer in 2009, and the Aaron Campbell and Keaton Otis incidents.
Frederick wants to see police officers become a more integrated part of the community they police. The bill also would increase scrutiny of how people of different races, ethnicities, and other profiling characteristics are treated by police officers when pulled over; how minority officers are recruited and retained and, according to an email sent to constituents “calls for tracking the amount of time an officer spends in the community outside of his duties as law enforcement.”
Amanda Waldroupe: Why are you introducing these four bills?
Lew Frederick: There is a basic issue that is behind all of them. There are a large number of people in my community that are afraid of the police. And the police are afraid of the community.
A.W.: Why are police officers afraid of the community? Some people might find that surprising.
L.F.: They are afraid, when they go out every day that they may not come back. There is real fear. That was a revelation that came to me—that we have two groups that fear one another. We need to find some way to break through that.
A.W.: When you say the “community,” do you mean people living in your district, or just the African-American community?
L.F.: I’m talking about the African-American community. I think there’s a significant portion of young white people that fear the police, a significant portion of the Latino community that fears the police. There are a number of people in the community that fear the police.
A.W.: In your bill regarding community policing, you talk about officers attending community events, and the need for them to spend more time in the community outside of their job. How can you dictate what an officer does outside their job?
L.F.: I can’t dictate what they do outside their job. The police force itself, the chief, can have them do certain things. Right now, many of them will be part of the Police Activities League program. They’ll do a picnic, or after school basketball. But what I’m suggesting is that … real community policing involves being involved in the community, not having the community come and see you. It’s effective.
L.F.: I know. I’ve seen it. The classic example is what used to be the Portland School Police, which is now a part to the Portland Police Bureau. When it was the Portland School Police, I walked into a basketball game, and I had been told that a gang fight was supposed to take place between two groups. And I walked in and sat down on the bleachers, and one of the Portland School Police officers came in, walked past me, and went to talk to this young man that was sitting very close to me. I could overhear him. He said, “I know why you’re here. I know what you’re trying to start. I’m going to tell you this: You’re not going to do anything, because if you do, I’m going to talk to your mama.” And the young fellow said, “I’m not going to do anything!”
The police officer said, “I just want you know that I know who to talk to if anything happens.”
A.W.: I guess the threat of telling one’s mother is more powerful than the threat of arrest.
L.F.: It’s a whole lot more powerful. The point there is that he not only knew this kid, but he probably knew all the other kids in the bleachers, and not just the bad kids. In the community policing model, one of the biggest issues is that you need to have a sense of who’s supposed to be there, what they do and how they can help, and not approach the community as though everyone is a potential enemy. Community policing breaks that down. Community policing creates a trust for everyone.
A.W.: How do you think that can be accomplished in Portland?
L.F.: If the police officers decided to attend the churches, or some of the community events not in uniform and introduce themselves and say “by the way, I’m a police officer” that would start an effort right there. One of the things that was most interesting was the reception Mike Reese got when he attended the Juneteenth celebration back in June. He got an incredibly welcome reception. He showed up not to stand behind a table to say “this is who I am,” but he came to find out about the program. The effective police officers are the ones who know the people around them, and not as potential criminals or victims.
A.W.: One of the bills talks about reforming the investigations that are done when someone dies as a result of a police officer using lethal force. Why do you think that’s necessary?
L.F.: There’s a transparency issue. It should not have conflicts of interest, and have a high degree of integrity. It should be clear who’s doing the investigation, and they should not have any preconceived notions as to what should happen.
A.W.: You make the point that the deaths of James Chasse, Jackie Collins, Aaron Campbell and Keaton Otis — who, with the exception of James Chasse all died within the last year — are the first or only deaths of people at the hands of police officers in Portland’s recent history. But why are people now paying attention, and calling for changes in how the Police Bureau uses lethal force?
L.F.: Part of it is because the political environment is such that there are people who plan on listening.
A.W.: Like who?
L.F.: I’m not trying to be overly dramatic or egotistical, but quite frankly, I’m the first black male in the Oregon Legislature since 1996, and the fourth one in the history of Legislature. There are other people who are doing things as well. There is a recognition at the City Council level that this is not OK (and) Ron Wyden has asked for an investigation at the federal level.
A.W.: Your first bill calls for an “immediate” investigation into incidents of officer-involved deaths. How immediate is immediate?
L.F.: As quickly as it can be done. At this point, across the state there is a range of how quickly people are interviewed. The investigation that I’m suggesting should take place not by the local jurisdiction. I’m suggesting a tiger team type of investigators who are from outside the county that the incident took place in, and that it be overseen by the Attorney General’s office, and not by the local District Attorney’s office.
L.F.: That provides a distance from any sort of conflicts of interests. The district attorney relies on many of those jurisdictions for a number of things on that same day. Having a more independent group rather than a local group do the investigation gives much greater credibility.
A.W.: Have you spoken to Oregon Attorney General John Kroger about this?
L.F.: He tended to be supportive of it. He wondered, though, how it is going to be paid for.
A.W.: How is it going to be paid for?
L.F.: Well, that is a good question. There are two approaches that I have suggested. The cost of that investigation could be born by the district attorney, or there could be a pool created by district attorneys across the state to set up an investigative team.
A.W.: What level of Legislative support do you expect to get for these bills, especially considering that the Democrats have lost their majorities in both chambers?
L.F.: I have to tell you that so far I have not seen this turn into a partisan issue at all. We have gotten good responses from both sides of the aisle.
A.W.: When you say “independent,” who would be members of this investigative team? Would it be members of law enforcement, or non-profits, or other entities?
L.F.: You need to have a law enforcement investigation. They’re going to be somebody who know how to do investigations, and can do a thorough, legal investigation. I’m not talking about having a community investigation. I want to be sure that it is being done legally, and without any loopholes. Police officers can have an agenda, but I have seen more of a blatant one on the part of folks who have come in for an investigation.
A.W.: Why do you think the communities that currently fear the police are going to trust law enforcement officers from other counties?
L.F.: They don’t trust a local law enforcement officer is going to be as objective. They aren’t beholden to their jurisdiction. That’s part of the independence.
A.W.: To shift to your bill about changing the definition of when lethal force can be used. What do you mean by “reasonable” in relation to adding it to the definition of when lethal force can be used?
L.F.: There’s no bill that will do that right now, right away. That bill is in fact calling for a state force to look at reasonable force.
L.F.: I want to make sure that we look at all of the potentially unintended (consequences). “Reasonable” is scattered throughout state legislation. I want to have a group of people take a long, close look making sure that we’re not causing problems for a lot of issues.
A.W.: Say that this task force comes up with a recommendation, what difference do you hope it would make?
L.F.: What I don’t want to have is someone able to say, “I felt my life was in danger” when they shot at a person two blocks away. I’m talking about the Aaron Campbell situation. The guy was behind a car shooting a sniper rifle. That doesn’t (justify) lethal force as far as I’m concerned.
A.W.: Your third bill would change the training officers receive, especially in regards to how they interact with people who have a “disability.” What do you mean by the term “disability”?
L.F.: I’m really talking about mental illness. That is what we’ve seen as a major encounter, and that is what police officers are encountering more and more — mental illness and chemical dependence issues. The officer needs to understand what’s going on and how to address it. The problem is not the training they are getting; it is that translation of that training to the streets. The police have become part of the mental health system. That’s one of the biggest problems. That’s not their role. We have abdicated the responsibility of helping people to the police.
A.W.: What kind of training do officers need to get?
L.F.: They need to know how to identify what the issues initially are, and what they can do as triage.
A.W.: If we don’t have a more robust mental health system, what difference will that ultimately be making?
L.F.: If we don’t do that, then what difference will it make? We’ll have a regular situation where the James Chasse’s will be beaten up.
A.W.: What do you hope these bills will accomplish statewide?
L.F.: I hope they begin to break through and create some sense of trust. That’s certainly not going to happen in one session, or with a wave of a wand. But I think it begins the process.