In the new documentary “Arresting Power,” which premiered at the Northwest Film Center in January, there is a 1981 film clip of Portland police commissioner Charles Jordan in heated dialogue with outraged citizens protesting a blatant act of racial harassment. A group of police officers had left four dead opossums at the door of the Burger Barn, a black-owned business on Northeast Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd). In this bit of news footage, the eloquent Jordan — Portland’s first African American to serve on City Council — fends off their demands that Chief Bruce Baker be fired, obviously believing that firing just the officers will fix the problem.
The very next day he and Chief Baker did fire Jim Galloway and Craig Ward, the authors of the prank and two of seven officers who carried it out.
The Portland Police Association (PPA) came back fighting: It organized a rally on behalf of Galloway and Ward, then hired them both on as union employees at the same pay they had on the force.
The real test, Jordan had insisted to the protesters, is: “How do we correct it to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” His optimistic response sounds especially poignant today in a film that reminds us how little has changed in 34 years.
“Arresting Power,” made by local artists Julie Perini, Jodi Darby and Erin Yanke, looks at 50 years of policing in Portland. The work is filled with emotionally wrenching moments, among them the interviews with family members of unarmed black youth who were shot and killed in encounters with the police. On camera, local activists and historians analyze policing in terms of relationships to race and class.
The film offers no solutions. As filmmaker Yanke points out, “That’s because every community is unique, and it’s all about relationship building, conversations and building trust.”
That conversation takes place across a wide spectrum, political as well as geographical.
In New York, Police Commissioner William Bratton, talking to Robert Siegel last month on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” acknowledged that African-American men experience harsher treatment than their white counterparts. Bratton went on to point out that it was not a simple matter of reforming the police. “We’re talking about a much more complex, larger national issue,” Bratton insisted. “Don’t go blaming the police. I’m sorry, we’re not going to be the whipping boy, if you will, for this issue in America.”
On the other end of this discussion, the prison abolition movement, which author Kristian Williams addresses in the new film, does not find police reform a worthwhile effort.
Meanwhile, in Portland, people of faith and people of color are desperate to see the shootings and beatings stop. The Albina Ministerial Alliance, the NAACP, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and many other groups have long protested, with pen or picket, the inappropriate use of deadly force, but to little avail.
Supposing that a trigger-happy racism infects only a tiny minority of our officers, citizens have tried for decades to pressure successive chief and city commissioners to root it out by firing those few. The Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes Jr., who has emerged as one of several leaders of this campaign, reminds us: “A hallmark of American democracy is the belief in civilian control over the military and law enforcement.”
But firing never seems to work, because the PPA is prepared to spend any amount of time and money litigating to get their members reinstated, usually with back pay.
A recent case in point was the firing of Officer Ron Frashour, after he fatally shot in the back unarmed Aaron Campbell, 25, in January 2010, during a police welfare check. (Campbell’s brother had died that very day.) The see-sawing back and forth of this case was excruciating to watch: Chief Mike Reese fired Frashour in the fall of 2010; the PPA contested by filing a complaint with the Employee Relations Board; ERB arbitrator Jane Wilkinson ordered Frashour reinstated; Mayor Sam Adams, determined to go the distance, appealed back to the ERB, then in September 2012, Frashour was reinstated with back pay and 9 percent interest for the two years he was in limbo; whereupon City Council sent the matter to the Oregon State Court of Appeals, where it languishes.
Copwatch’s Dan Handelman, a dedicated full-time activist, has anguished over this question for years: “What does it take to keep an officer fired?”
The reactionary muscle of police unions is not just local. In New York, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association recently pitted itself against Mayor Bill de Blasio who dared to campaign on police reform, principally in the area of stop-and-frisk procedures and their related racial statistics.
I can’t help thinking that hundreds of our police officers must be equally uneasy about this situation: Anonymity inside the machine of the police union must be like being trapped inside the black mask of riot gear: the good cops -- their opinions, their hopes for better community relations and their very humanity -- are silenced and invisible.
But I know almost nothing about police unions; only that we don’t see from them the external solidarity that characterizes other unions. We know that longshoremen (ILWU), say, or electrical workers (IBEW) would not cross an SIEU picket line if they found a hotel or restaurant on strike. Why aren’t police unions in that same fraternity of workers?
To help understand the nature and history of the PPA, I turned to author and labor historian Norman Diamond. He’s been a steelworker, sawmill worker, machinist, university professor and president of the Pacific Northwest Labor College. He has lectured widely, in Europe and Latin America, as well as Canada and the United States. For nine years he hosted “The Old Mole Variety Hour” on Portland’s KBOO community radio station as part of a rotating group, and he continues to make guest appearances on the air. He’s the author of numerous essays on labor environmentalism, workers’ control and labor history and co-author of “The Power In Our Hands: A Curriculum On the History of Work and Workers in the United States.” His recent publications include “Occupy the Workplace,” “Against the Current,” and “Why Teach a 100-Year-Old Strike?” in American Educator. He serves as trustee for the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association and developed a labor history tour of Portland for that organization.
Martha Gies: Norm, is it fair to describe you as a staunch ally of labor?
Norman Diamond: Absolutely, of both working men and women and organized labor. I began working with unions as a 15 year-old, out of the United Automobile Workers’ Solidarity House in Detroit, and that was more than five decades ago. To anticipate your next question, my experience with unions composed of police officers is that they’re ambiguous institutions, sharing much in common with many other unions and yet decidedly different. Their relation to labor is both touchy and problematic.
M.G.: And they’re under scrutiny in many cities right now. But let’s start with a little local history. The Portland Metropolitan Police Force was formed in 1870, with six patrolmen, a lieutenant and a chief. This is from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) website, by the way. Their first contract was 1942.
N.D.: No, not a contract with the city. 1942 is when they organized, which makes the Portland Police Association the longest continuously functioning police union in the country. That year they received a charter from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a national union. But, they did not succeed in winning a contract with the city until 1970.
Even lacking a contract, but as an AFSCME affiliate, they participated with other unions in the State Federation of Labor and the local Central Labor Council. When they pushed for a pension plan in the late 1940s along with the firefighters, their speakers were welcomed by nearly every union meeting in town and their outreach won them strong labor backing. They owe their first contract, as well, to the support of other unions. Specifically the ILWU and Teamsters, who shut down the Port of Portland for three days until the city agreed to recognize the police union.
Then, after winning that first contract, the PPA disaffiliated from AFSCME. Other than a brief attempt to create a national union of police officers, the PPA has stayed independent since 1970. By and large they’ve gone their own way, not identifying with other unions unless they needed something.
In the early 1980s, I used to have regular meetings with representatives of the PPA to encourage their labor identification. For a while their offices were in the same building on Southeast Morrison Street as the Northwest Labor Press, and Gene Klare, editor of the Labor Press, hosted monthly lunches for me and Jeff Barker, editor of the PPA’s newsletter The Rap Sheet, who later became PPA president. Occasionally Stan Peters, their president at that time, would join us.
M.G.: Full disclosure, Norm: I was a deputy sheriff for Marion County, in Salem, back in the ‘70s. And looking at your deep past, I know that back in 1988, you and Bill Bigelow wrote that wonderful high school and adult education text, The Power in our Hands.
Your handbook includes this introductory list of what unions do: negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions; set up committees to strive for worker health and safety; promote legislation favorable to workers; represent and defend workers in disciplinary proceedings within workplaces; likewise, represent and defend them when workers have grievances against arbitrary authority or contract violation by management.
As I look over the current (2013-17) labor agreement between the PPA and the city of Portland, I see the majority of the articles deal with precisely those kinds of issues: seniority, vacations, leave for sickness, death, education and military service; compensation; hazard premium; allowances for clothing and equipment; insurance; legal fees; funeral expenses; safety and performance evaluations.
Clearly the police need these assurances.
N.D.: And some of those provisions were hard-won; clothing and weapons, for instance. Initially, police had to provide their own. It took collective pressure by them, along with mobilization of community and labor support, to win the provision that’s now part of their contract.
Another notable issue early on was the union, wanting to protect its members, saying: If any of our members commits an act subject to discipline, we want them to have union representation. That’s reasonable. Their claim was, cops have to have the same rights as anybody else in society.
But then, with successive contracts, they extended those rights beyond anything the rest of us have. Now, in the event of a shooting, you can’t question a police officer until two days have passed.
M.G.: Who can’t?
N.D.: Their superiors can’t. The district attorney’s office can’t. And that’s part of the labor contract. So they have a chance to meet with other officers involved in the shooting to get their stories straight and go over everything with their lawyers. And then, after two days, they can bring back what becomes the official version. It’s a real distortion of what was initially a valid concern to gain equal rights.
M.G.: OK, I see we’re talking about Article 126.96.36.199: “Whenever delay in conducting the interview will not jeopardize the successful accomplishment of the investigation or when criminal culpability is not at issue, advance notice shall be given the officer not less than forty-eight (48) hours before the initial interview commences or written reports are required from the officer. The advance notice shall include whether the officer is a witness or a suspect, the location, date and time of the incident, the complainant’s name, and the nature of the allegation against the officer.”
N.D.: What we see historically is the police functioning first as a union with many similarities to other public sector unions, and then increasingly narrowly-focused and becoming a powerful political force in Portland. But what’s important in understanding the PPA or any police union is not in their contract.
M.G.: One step at a time. Are they a real union?
N.D.: So first, we need to talk about what unions are. The term represents a vast range of existing types of organizations. Within that range many are hierarchical, narrowly self-interested and also politically active. In those respects, police unions fall within the normal range, albeit having won some concessions beyond what other unions have, that may even be thought of as worker control issues, such as their resistance to civilian oversight.
M.G.: That resistance is evident in press releases issued by Daryl Turner, who is currently president of the PPA. In his statement from Oct. 23, 2013, for example, where he is pushing back against proposed expanded powers of the Independent Police Review’s regarding disciplinary investigations.
“IPR’s proposed code changes trigger a number of collective bargaining issues that must be addressed before the City can implement the code changes,” Turner writes. “These mandatory subjects of bargaining include, but are not limited to, discipline, job security, and minimum fairness. Our collective bargaining agreement also contains a number of provisions regarding the discipline process. IPR’s proposed changes will also impact those contract rights.”
N.D.: Right. He’s reminding us that this is one front on which no changes, however necessary many of us think they are, can be made without violating provisions that PPA has gained in their contract negotiations.
Something else police unions have in common with others: Many unions also act as stalking horses for their employers, taking positions or lobbying on behalf of their corporation or administration, in the case of police unions even “forcing” the chiefs to do what they really want to do but can’t admit publicly.
Something that might be cited as distinguishing them from other unions is their contractual prohibition of striking. But this seems to me a false issue. There are very few strikes of public employees in any case, and police have ways of applying on-the-job pressure that really amount to strikes.
M.G.: So here in the PPA contract, Article 14, we see: “The Association agrees that during the life of this Contract, there shall be no strikes, work stoppages, slowdowns, speed-ups, or any other non-protected concerted action to bring pressure on the City.” And you’re saying this is typical of police contracts. Yet we did see a work slowdown in New York in January.
When Robert Siegel interviewed New York Police Commissioner William Bratton on All Things Considered, Siegel began by pointing out the 90% decline in criminal summonses issued. Though Patrick Lynch, who is head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association -- the New York City police union -- denied any slowdown. So Siegel asked the police commissioner: “Is there a police protest, a job action, now underway or isn’t there?”
And Bratton told him: “There is. We’ve had the opportunity over several days now to take a close look at the numbers and we are quite clearly - or were in a slowdown. It is being corrected. We’ve been taking management initiatives to identify where it’s occurring, when it’s occurring. ... We’re coming out of what was a pretty widespread stoppage of certain types of activity.”
N.D.: Yes. I was thrilled when the police stopped writing tickets and stopped petty enforcement actions in New York. All measures of crime actually diminished. Ever since the Boston police strike of 1919, cops have invoked the specter of increased crime if they weren’t out there doing what they do. This recent experience, and there have been others like it, raises fundamental questions about whether we need the kind of police forces that we have, whether we wouldn’t be better off with a different vision of policing.
Which gets us back to the major distinction between police and other unions: It’s not in the wording of any labor agreement, but centers on the role police play in society as violence-ready guardians of the existing social order.
This creates a tension for cops who mainly come from working class backgrounds when ordered to control acts by other people of similar class origins. How police departments re-condition their workers is a fascinating question, which bears on the circumstances when police officers might – I say “might” – act in solidarity with other workers. This, however, may be a different and larger discussion than you have in mind.
M.G.: It is probably the most baffling thing about police unions: Who actually employs them (technically, taxpayers, I would think). But whose side are they on when they are dispatched to a picket line?
When we look at the unions we are more familiar with, say longshoremen (ILWU) or electrical workers (IBEW), we see the customary solidarity between them: neither would go cross an SIEU picket line if a hotel was on strike. But we don’t see find police in that same worker fraternity.
I was living in San Francisco in January, 1970, when hundreds of members of the International Typographers Union went to the aid of 45 San Rafael ITU members striking against the San Rafael Independent Journal for a new contract. There was a terrible riot on Valentine’s Day, when the police brutally attacked them. So was that the police union?
N.D.: The tension of class identification, the ambiguity of police identification with labor, surfaces with some regularity. One instance was in the year 2000, when we re-established May Day in Portland, reconnecting it with its 1886 origins in the American labor struggle.
Remember, this was shortly after the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. And the police used military tactics against the demonstrators here, beating people, breaking us up into small groups, running some down with horses. Toward the end of the day a few of us gathered near Powell’s Books, kind of maintaining some semblance of a demonstration.
M.G.: Powell’s Books, right. That was when the ILWU was negotiating their first labor agreement for Powell’s workers.
N.D.: Right. There was a line of cops facing us right down Burnside, up and down Burnside, east to west. And we were on the north side of Burnside and the police were closing in.
And, just coincidentally, the ILWU was in town for their national conference at the Hilton. And all of a sudden, just as the police were closing in on us, 400 ILWU delegates marched up Southwest 10th toward Burnside. It was a huge mass of these big, burly guys. And the police now were between them and us. And Brian McWilliams, who was president of the ILWU at the time, said two things to the cops. He said, “Remember, you wouldn’t have your union if it weren’t for us.” And he said, “Keep that in mind, and we’re coming through.”
And the cops just dispersed.
M.G.: This is the riot that Chief Kroeker took such heat for. He had those officers out there in riot gear. I remember hearing about arrests, injuries and even people being clubbed.
N.D.: Another example, going back further, we had that “possum incident.” Well after those two cops were fired, the PPA came to the Labor Council here in town, which is the political organization of all the different unions, and affiliated with the national unions. They came asking for support from these other unions. “This is a labor issue, these guys were fired without going through the contractual procedure, without due process, essentially. And, as a labor issue, we want the backing of the Labor Council.” And the Labor Council, eager to have the PPA identify with the larger labor movement, supported them unanimously at first.
I intervened. I wasn’t a delegate but I had some standing at the time, and I said, “Racism, too, is a labor issue. We can’t just unequivocally give our support to somebody saying they’re a union, over and over again, when they don’t act like it in real life.” My recollection is that the Labor Council still backed the PPA, but on a much closer vote.
M.G.: But they were actually part of the Labor Council?
N.D.: They started out as members, back when they were still AFSCME. And for awhile, after they got their independent union, their PPA contract, they were still part of the local Labor Council. But they’ve since broken away from all of that.
I think that’s pretty much true nationally. I think it’s fairly universal. This is part of why I find it hard to think of the police associations as unions or labor organizations anymore. But when they need it, they still play the union card.
M.G.: But in the case of this particular union, the safety and rights of all Portland is at stake. For decades, communities of color, of disenfranchisement, have felt under siege. Meanwhile the whole police force is imagined to be responsible for the actions of a few.
N.D.: It’s undoubtedly true that some cops are worse than others, some more blatantly racist or more brutal. And being able to fire them would be good. But as I’ve tried to say, the problem goes well beyond a labor contract or a few bad apples. Police departments were created and exist to maintain a society that itself has issues of racism (and exploitation and unfairness). The discussion we need to have is about the kind of policing we’d like to have, the responsibility and oversight of police, and ultimately, the kind of society we’d like to live in.
Impenetrable Force: Upcoming events on race, police and reform
There are five events this week, including City Club’s Friday Forum, to gather in community to talk about race and policing, and to observe these last few days of Black History Month.
Saturday, Feb. 21: Oregon Humanities Community Discussion on Race and Policing, Conversation leader: Veronica Dujon, PSU sociology professor and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Center for Intercultural Organizing, 700 N Killingsworth St., 1:30-3 p.m.; public welcome, no charge.
Monday, Feb. 23: Arresting Power, 90-minute, locally made documentary. Hollywood Theatre, 7 p.m. Tickets available online and (while they last) at the door: $6-8.
Tuesday, Feb. 24: Oregon Humanities Community Discussion on Race and Policing, conversation leader: Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities. Mount Hood Community College Student Union, 26000 SE Stark St., Room 1051, Gresham; 5:30-7 p.m.; public welcome, no charge.
Friday, Feb. 27: “Can Portland’s Police Really Change?” City Club’s Friday Forum, 614 SW 11th Avenue, doors open 11:30 a.m. for 12:15 p.m. program. Advance registration required; $30 admission for non-members includes lunch.
Saturday, Feb. 28: Oregon Humanities Community Discussion on Race and Policing, Conversation leader: Wendy Willis, executive director of the Policy Consensus Initiative. Rockwood Library, 17917 SE Stark St.; public welcome, no charge.