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The police: sworn to serve whom?


Police report: Suspect was armed with pen and pad and could have embarrassed me.

By Allan Classen


I don’t know what I can add to the story of our city under protest, a story so widely reported and so much broader than the confines of the neighborhoods in this corner of the city. And yet it is on the minds of every reader, and may shape Portland history more profoundly than any movement in our past. To say nothing seems timorous, even irresponsible.


The protests are about policing in its fullest sense. Whom do the police serve: the citizens, elected officials or themselves? This goes beyond tactics, union contracts and accountability boards.


I’ll start with things I know. I’ll never forget the protests of the “battle of Overton” in 1989, when four vintage houses on the 2300 blocks of Northwest Overton and Pettygrove streets were demolished. Three others were headed for the same fate had 23 people not put their bodies on the line and been arrested for blocking the bulldozers.


I watched them being taken away. None were resistant or threatening to anyone’s safety. Yet many were marched away by police officers twisting their arms behind their backs and lifting in a special hold to cause pain. Suspects grimaced as they walked hunched over to relieve some degree of pressure. One man’s wrist was twisted so forcefully that it never fully healed.

Why inflict pain on a defenseless person posing no threat to yourself or others? Was this about preserving public safety, obeying their political bosses or exercising dominion over another human “because you can”?


I’ve read about the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students were assigned roles as prisoners or guards. After six days, the study had to be halted due to the brutality of students given uniforms, batons and permission to act as authorities over fellow students who were just like them before the study began.


The 1961 Milgram Shock Experiment at Yale University encouraged individuals to administer what they were led to believe were painful and perhaps deadly shocks to strangers. Most showed no restraint as supervisors told them to never mind the screams.


The cruel behaviors emerging in these experiments from “normal” people suggests that giving police officers uniforms, weapons and the authority to use force changes them in ways even they may not understand.


How do police officers cope when the violence within them is unleashed? I have never been in their shoes and must rely on what others have said and written, but it is human nature to seek comfort and comradery from those who have had the same experience, especially when they feel friends and family could never understand. A culture within the institution far stronger than rules or policies is created. This is one reason police conduct cannot be reviewed adequately by peers.


There is another reason, and it is more fundamental. Just as the military must be accountable to civilian control, police misconduct must be subject to democratically elected authority. Portland has layers upon layers of police review, but all are subservient to a union contract prohibiting discipline that might cause “embarrassment.” Unbelievable!


Despite the enormous burden placed on those who use state-sanctioned force against others and the societal risks involved with arming guardians of the peace, I believe there is a place for their service. There are those among us who would kill, destroy or bring evil down if not met with sufficient force.


But if deadly force is to be reserved as the last resort, it should not be the prerogative of every job applicant capable of acquiring a GED or meeting other standards necessarily lowered to get people in uniform.


If most of policing today is social work—and a majority of calls for service are not related to violence—more social workers may be what we need. The new Portland Street Response program could soon provide some answers on that score.


Could “defunding” the police be a mistake? Absolutely. Could continuing policing under the current paradigm be a mistake? I’m even more certain of that.


A democracy succeeds when it adapts to the changing conditions of the society. If we sometimes overcompensate in seeking the right balance, that is the nature of the system. That is how we find the center of the road. It is clear that taking a hard right no matter what we see in our windshield is sending us over a cliff.


African Americans have borne far more than their share of atrocities at the hands of police. I hope the predominantly white demonstrators marching every night in Portland prove that white America does not want militarized racist policing either.

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