Shortly after 5 p.m. on Sept. 10, at the height of the Thursday evening dinner at St. Francis, diners were disrupted by a slew of police and a camera crew who entered from either side of the dining hall with camera’s rolling.
The camera was for the show “Cops,” filming the police pursuit of a man wanted in a homicide. Staffers told the officers the man was not there, but according to people at the scene, the camera kept rolling and officers continued to question diners at the charitable meal for the homeless and poor.
The event was a traumatic experience for some diners, who did not give their permission to be filmed.
“The people were very, very agitated,” said Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator at St. Francis. “And unfortunately, there is an assumption on the part of people who are vulnerable anyway that the staff must have been in on it. So we’ve been mitigating this that the staff didn’t know. We’re trying to do the best to maintain calm. We’re keeping the peace in a very awkward moment. And finding out what and why.”
Although St. Francis is in the newly reconfigured Central Precinct of the Portland Police Bureau, the officers who went into St. Francis were from the North Precinct.
Calls to the North Precinct offices were returned by Mary Wheat, public information officer with the Portland Police Bureau. Wheat said that periodically they have the show “Cops” following officers and filming, and in this case, the officers received permission from someone at the door to enter St. Francis at the time they arrived with the camera crew. Chapman said she’s the only one who can authorize a film crew to go into the hall.
“We would never take a film crew in without people knowing what’s going on,” Chapman said. “We maintain a place where people have the dignity they deserve and that’s our goal.”
Wheat said that she has looked at the footage and the police have decided it will not be released for broadcast.
“None of that footage is going to be used,” Wheat said. “We’re very sensitive to people being concerned about it. We’re not going to push something like that with the community. It’s not that we feel that we did anything wrong, we’re just trying to be a good partner.”
But for Chapman, the damage has been done.
“I’m not sure if any of the powers involved have any idea just how much damage was done just being there,” Chapman said. Chapman said the event has strained the trust developed between the diners and the staff, and also between the St. Francis community and the new officers patrolling the expanded Central Precinct area.
“I work on a regular basis with the police, meet with them and try to mitigate any issues on the campus. And I have a lot of respect with the officers with which I talk, and have a relationship with.”
Chapman said she has met and talked about the incident with police at Central Precinct and with the police Neighborhood Response Team that patrols around the campus.
“There is still a lot of angst. I think they (patrons) get that it wasn’t the staff. On a regular basis officers do not go into St. Francis, into the dining hall. We’ve been thinking about, with the new precinct situation, doing some tours. We’ve put that on hold because we’re a little concerned with how people will respond.”
The man the police were looking for was not there while they were there. However, later, staff called police to inform them that the person was on the campus, and police took him in custody without incident. He later was released without charges, Wheat said.
“We want to create a place of sanctuary and rest for people who don’t often find that,” Chapman said. “At the same time we don’t want to create a hiding place for criminal activity. It’s a real balancing act.”
Chapman, who doesn’t own a television, said she learned only after the incident that the camera crew was with the show “Cops,” a show she has never seen, but already has sized up.
“I’m not sure I understand a television show that can, in essence, prey on people in their worst hour or their most vulnerable moment,” Chapman said.
“We understand that St. Francis was upset with it. We’re sensitive to that,” Wheat said. “We need to hold up our end of the bargain as do they. Our officers acted professionally and received permission to come in with the cameras.”
SR Staff Reports