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Editorial: Blue culture matters

By Allan Classen

For everyone crying “defund the police,” others call for increasing police resources in Portland. One might think it’s a matter of finding the just-right budget size for local law enforcement. If only it were that simple.


Punishing the Portland Police Bureau for homicides or excessive force cases will not produce kinder, gentler policing. Nor will adding bureau resources to address growing gun violence or ongoing anarchist mayhem.


Before we can know how much to spend on policing, we need to understand why it has not fostered the safe, lawful city we all want, and why additional arms and force too often fuel more violence and reaction.


The Portland Police Bureau is not like a work crew we can send out to fix a road or sewer. Policing is a people job, one that involves being alert to misbehavior, judging the intentions of strangers and accepting physical danger. It naturally draws officers into a brotherhood of mutual support and trust. No matter the training or rules of conduct on the books, police officers tend to define what makes good policing by what their peers do and say. Volumes have been written on this subject.


For a more specific local perspective, I turn to people who have worn the uniform in our city. Former Portland Police Chief and Mayor Tom Potter spoke to the Downtown Neighborhood Association in March. I have known Potter since the 1980s, when he commanded the Central Precinct. He consistently championed community policing, whetting appetites for what could be even as transformation remained theoretical.


“As chief, I said at every roll call that the community comes first,” Potter told DNA members. “Police culture puts loyalty to each other first—your second loyalty is to the community.”

A Portland Police Association union representative told him that’s how things were and how they would be.


“I realized the police union was a problem,” he said. “They were committed to upholding the warrior approach. I don’t think much has changed, frankly. That police culture is a hard nut to crack. It never happened when I was chief, and it never happened when I was mayor.”


As our only mayor who was also chief of police, Potter has a unique perspective. But his assessment matches that of another man I know, a retired county sheriff and elected official who told me privately that the police culture is so strong that new recruits cannot change it. Instead, they predictably become imbued with that culture. Reforming an existing police department from within, he concluded, may be impossible.


A culture that tells officers that only the views of their peers matter may explain why police shootings keep happening despite public outcries and reform efforts. The police know their approach puts them on a collision course with the people they are sworn to serve. They know how popular the idea of the Portland Response Team, a fledgling program enlisting unarmed counselors in responding to mental health crises, is in our city. But the brotherhood always seems to come first.


The U.S. Department of Justice has been enforcing a 2014 agreement with the Portland Police Bureau related largely to excessive force against the mentally ill, and still the bureau cannot demonstrate that it has instituted the changes expected.


A series of local police accountability systems has piled on an ash heap over the decades, but all suffered from limited purview and meager buy-in. Through resistance to civilian oversight, police officers are saying that civilians cannot judge them.

I believe most police officers chose the profession because they wanted to protect and serve, but their early idealism was no match for the culture they had to swim in. Until our political leaders directly and candidly address police culture, there will be no change.

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