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Letter: Police Brutality & Conflict Resolution

The text below is a letter I sent to Portland's mayor, chief of police, and city commissioners yesterday. I woke up this morning to learn that two people were shot and killed overnight in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during similar protests against police brutality.

I'm at a loss. Maybe you are too.


For going on close to three months now, Portland, Oregon has been the site of protests against police brutality, especially its prevalence against people of color. Even before the current president ordered federal agents to our city, police here were responding to these protests with tear gas, physical violence and the unlawful arrests of members of the press. For the most part, Portland police have continued to respond this way after Governor Brown negotiated for federal police to stay out of our city's conflict.

Well before the rest of the country paid attention to the Portland protests, the mayor's office and the police department argued these tactics were the only way to solve the conflict. I know, because I wrote to you about my dissatisfaction with your performance. Here’s a paragraph from the form letter the PPB sent back to me:

We have tried de-escalation as suggested, including completely removing ourselves and not being visible at all. Despite that, violence still ensues, including fires and acts that threatened life and safety. For example, on June 29, 2020, there were no visible police officers. The crowd grew even more aggressive, shattering the glass in order to break into Central Precinct. That night they also did extensive damage to City Hall as well as the base of the elk statue.

What the Portland Police Bureau are arguing is that they’ve tried two forms of conflict resolution: competition and avoidance. In the first, they respond to violence with more violence, attempting to establish their dominance over the protesters by “winning.” In the second, they respond to violence by hiding inside city buildings, denying there’s a problem and waiting to see if it will just go away on its own. We saw more of this avoidance last weekend, when Portland police refused to intervene while protesters and alt-right agitators engaged in a violent brawl downtown.

Regardless, the police here are leaving at least three other methods of conflict resolution off the table. It’s doubtful that they’re going to accommodate the protesters, because that would mean losing their jobs while the city reorganizes its institutions. But they could still try to compromise or even collaborate with the protesters on finding a solution to our city’s problem. If their role is to resolve conflict within our community, then with these protests alone they’ve shown they’re incapable of that task.

These are basic communication skills every police officer should know. Across the street from my house is Vernon Elementary School. Its playground has a painted pie chart (pictured above) listing ways for children to respond to conflict. It features options like “apologize,” “talk it out,” and “make a deal,” showing that my neighborhood’s children understand how to resolve conflict better than the adults we’re paying to do it in our community.

Mayor Wheeler, this is a long way of saying, "Do your job." Find a productive way to resolve this conflict, before the tactics of the Portland Police Bureau get someone killed.

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