PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As protests against racial injustice continue in Portland and across the United States, lawmakers in Salem met on Wednesday to hear from experts about police accountability, use of force during protests and how racism is a public health crisis.
The Oregon Legislature’s first meeting of the Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform was streamed in its entirety online as the Salem Capitol Building remains closed and touched on a variety of topics, including analyses of groups such as antifa and Proud Boys.
Testimony from invited guests followed a welcome from the committee’s Co-Chairs, Oregon Sen. James Manning and Oregon Rep. Janelle Bynum in what they described as an “information session.”
One of the most striking testimonies came from Michael German, a former FBI agent and current Fellow of the Liberty and National Security program of Brennan Center for Justice who spoke to the importance of balancing First Amendment rights with law enforcement officer duties and obligations.
In terms of rooting out systemic racism in police agencies, German pointed to a 2015 FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide which warned that “Domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”
In addition, a 2006 intelligence assessment based on FBI investigations and open sources warned of “white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement by organized groups and by self-initiated infiltration by law enforcement personnel sympathetic to white supremacist causes,” German pointed out.
German had participated in working to uncover neo-Nazi groups in Los Angeles and militia groups in Washington State in the 1990s, he said.
“Obviously, only a tiny percentage of law enforcement officials are likely to be active members of white supremacist groups,” German clarified. “But one doesn’t need access to secretive intelligence gathered in FBI terrorism investigations to find evidence of overt and explicit racism within law enforcement.”
Among German’s suggestions for police agency reforms are a call for protections for law enforcement whistleblowers, having clearly written policies for vetting officers and for police agencies to be more transparent to the public.
The topic was continued with an “anatomy of a protest” analysis featuring Dr. Stanislav Vyostsky, an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Vyostsky said he has researched extensively as a sociologist on “antifa activism,” though interviews, field work and observations. One main point he made about antifa, which is an abbreviation for “anti fascists,” is that there is no centralized, coordinated antifa organization, but rather some formal groups and networks as well as informal groups.
Though some individuals associated with antifa may engage in “militant activities” that are intentionally confrontational, and even violent, the vast majority of the tactics that antifascists engage in, including those who consider themselves militant, are non-militant activities, Vyostsky said. Their main focus is on “information gathering and dissemination through education or public shaming campaigns.”
The one consistency among antifa members is their opposition to “fascist activity,” Vyostsky said.
“Antifascist activism increases in conjunction with increased mobilization and activism
by fascists, and similarly decreases when that movement demobilizes,” he said. “If one is interested in decreasing antifascist activism, then the surest means to achieve that is to ensure that the fascist movement is unable to mobilize.”
In German’s written comments, he also referenced antifa, saying President Donald Trump’s designation of antifa as a domestic terrorist organization only serves to amplify misinformation about the group. He said antifa is “not an organization” and that “there are no U.S. homicides resulting from anti-fascist actions.”
In response to Sen. Dallas Heard, a Republican committee member who represents Roseburg, who asked Vyostsky about specific fascist groups in operation in Oregon, Vyostsky said “One of the dynamics that we see is that the fascist movement is also decentralized.”
However Vyostsky also said there is a faction of Proud Boys in Oregon, which he said is a formal far-right group that organizes to engage in violence with those who oppose their point of view. Nationally, some high profile fascist groups that have been on the rise in recent years include Atomwaffen Division and The Base.
“Anti-fascist groups are responding to the violence of fascist groups…so that primarily the instigators of conflict are in fact the fascist groups they’re opposing,” Vyostsky said in response to further clarification from Rep. Akasha Lawrence Spence, a committee member and Democrat representing Portland’s West Side.
Dr. Jules Boykoff, Chair of Pacific University’s Politics and Government Department, also gave his point of view on the “anatomy of a protest” discussion.
His three main takeaways included pointing out that there’s an important difference between violence and vandalism and that the later is often conflated with the former as a justification for police responses in which use of force occurs. Boykoff also pointed out that under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, the use of chemical weapons like CS gas and teargas is illegal and yet it is still being used occasionally by Portland police, sometimes during non-violent protests. His last main point was that “democracy is messy.”
German, the former FBI agent, added that there have been a lot of studies about policing and mass protests stretching back to at least the 1960s and 70s and that the problems “are not new.” German said many of these studies found “escalating violence response” from police was a main issue, some police policy changes were put in place to address it, but many police institutions have since slid backwards from those reforms and returned to an escalation of violence response.
Switching to public health equity lens, a testimony was made by Oregon Health and Science University President Dr. Danny Jacob.
In terms of top public health concerns for Black people and people of color, Jacobs pointed to those marginalized communities being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19 as well as those communities “dying disproportionately by law enforcement.”
For instance, Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, Jacobs said, and have a decreased life expectancy compared to whites.
“When we look at the scientific evidence….it is clear to me and others that we are dealing with public health issues that are getting worse…persistent systemic racism is to blame,” said Jacobs, who shared he grew up in rural segregated Arkansas and as a Black man often had negative interactions with police in his life.
In addition, public health-centered testimony came from Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, the Executive Director of Avel Gordly Center for Healing and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at OHSU.
Moreland-Capuia emphasized the importance of creating a “demonstrable shift” in culture for reforms to hold permanence.
“What I’m seeking…is behavior change, organizational cultural change….it really does require changing hearts and minds,” she said.
Moreland-Capuia said resistance to change is often a product of trauma experienced by employees within an organization, and the organization itself, therefore one of her recommendations is for police agencies to apply a trauma informed care training at every level.
“The system is more likely to heal and change when those individual members focus on their [own] healing,” Moreland-Capuia said.
She also suggested more peer review, peer-led sessions within a police agency be held by police officers who can themselves suggest systemic reforms, creating a safety within the policing system, and a call for the community oversight advisory board to be “re-imagined” and made more robust.
American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon’s interim legal director, Kelly Simon, also testified to the importance of allowing freedom of expression to the fullest extent of U.S. and Oregon law.
The topic of officer-involved deadly use of force cases in the courtroom included a talk on understanding the reasonableness standard in deadly use of force, given by Marion County District Attorney and Oregon District Attorneys Association President Paige Clarkson.
Clarkson said officer use of deadly physical force investigations are among the most complex criminal investigations and that they often test the trust within each community. While issues such as accountability, transparency and release of information are topics in constant consideration in such cases, instances when heightened scrutiny is warranted can be difficult to determine due to each case having unique facts, she said.
Clackamas County District Attorney-Elect John Wentworth gave a breakdown of a case study in which three Oregon jail employees were still allowed to be police officers after an inmate death, despite the fact that expert testimony suggested in their trial that deputies were not only criminally negligent, but that their lack of action directly lead to the death of a man held in custody, James Wipple, who died at a Jefferson County Jail back in April 2017.
A discussion on jury instructions was also given from Multnomah County Judge Cheryl Albrecht.
Other members of the Joint Committee include Oregon Senators Lew Frederick, Bill Hansell, Dallas Heard, Floyd Prozanski, Kathleen Taylor and Kim Thatcher and Oregon House Representatives Alissa Keny-Guyer, Akasha Lawrence Spence, Rick Lewis and Ron Noble.
The committee will continue with meetings Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon each day as well as more sessions next week.