By Juan Carlos Valle
For The Register-Guard
The vast majority of police officers in Oregon demonstrate an outstanding commitment to serving and protecting their communities. Many commit extra time away from their loved ones to connect with and help the public. Unfortunately, there are also some who have forgotten their primary reason of public service.
When even one officer allows his or her unconscious bias toward people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic situations, or sexual orientation to be the deciding factor in who is stopped and questioned, we all lose.
Erasing the black mark left by profiling by law enforcement takes a very long time. When profiling happens, trust and collaboration between people of color and police officers takes a back seat. Way back. It’s no secret that recent deadly encounters between civilians and police officers across the country have awakened deep resentment and fear among many in minority populations. The aftermath of such encounters causes unforgettable wounds, but they are not impossible to heal.
To restore relationships between law enforcement and the community, we need statewide policies that define profiling and establish a pathway for accountability. Legislation — finally — is being considered in Salem that will clearly prohibit profiling in Oregon, require data collection, and establish procedures for receiving and recording profiling complaints. This would reinforce and expand vulnerable populations’ trust of law enforcement.
A single officer abusing his or her citizen-given power and authority to apply the law can quickly turn a positive presence into a destructive one.
I remember my first encounter with a police officer in Eugene. It was early in the morning. I was on my bicycle, and stopped at a traffic light. Next to my bicycle was a patrol car. The officer looked at me. The light turned green. Two blocks later, he pulled me over. With my broken English, I asked what the problem was. He said I had run a red light. Because of the language and cultural barriers I faced back then, I could not tell him that we were both at the light at the same time. He said, “ I saw you in the mirror. Your kind pisses me off.” In his report, he said I threw my bike to the ground and talked back at him.
The same officer was well known for his approach to minorities at the shelter where I was staying. I witnessed him approaching people, searching their backpacks, their wallets, and a few times pointing at his gun or pulling out handcuffs. I had additional contacts by him and other officers because I spoke with the shelter supervisor about the incident. The same officer approached me downtown late one night. His first comment to me was “Your kind is not supposed to be out this late.”
Given my less than positive encounters, I would be justified in wanting to avoid the police completely and stay away from efforts to help them in any way, but I feel a responsibility to make things better. Several years later, I was appointed to the Eugene Police Commission and later became the chairman. In this role, I’ve had one simple goal: to help improve relationships between the police and people of color.
The erosion of trust for those who are paid to protect and to serve us is noticed when vulnerable populations report being singled out and given citations for minor infractions.
Unfortunately, all of the disproportionate citations to minority populations can be perceived profiling.
In Oregon, we are ready to move forward and to re-establish our relationship with law enforcement. In the meantime, powerful, life-taking and protective entities such as police departments have to be ready to welcome, support and ultimately take advantage of the gift of involvement from the community they serve, especially racial and ethnic minorities.
But first they have to know me. They have to be willing to understand and be aware of their own biases and prejudices. They have to take a hard look at their communication style, their inherited power and the trust we give them to protect and serve.
We must make sure officers are supported and given all the necessary tools to do their job professionally; they protect us, and they need to go home safe to their families or partners. We must also have a clear and concise set of expectations of how law enforcement officers engage the community.
State legislation to end profiling will help all the great officers out there to continue to serve the people by defining what profiling is and creating rules of engagement.
Together with a uniform, transparent and reliable data collection system we can restore trust between the community and professional law enforcement officers.
Juan Carlos Valle, a former chairman of the Eugene Police Commission, is president of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Lane County.