While many historical studies discuss the role of police and community race relations in setting off riots throughout the twentieth century, few studies analyze in detail the relationship between the police and majority-black urban communities. This article adds to that work by chronicling the history of the black community’s attempts to reform policing in Portland’s Albina District.
The story begins in the mid 1960s, when policing became a major civil rights issue in Portland, and ends in 1985 with the murder of black Portlander Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson at the hands of the police. In Portland, three issues have been the objects of police reform: reduction of police brutality, increased civilian oversight of the police, and increased black representation in law enforcement. During the long and persistent struggle, some progress was made. Nevertheless, by the mid 1980s, the relationship between the Portland police and the black community remained essentially unchanged, and racial equality continued to be an elusive goal in Portland. The urgency with which black Portlanders pushed for police reform throughout that time suggests that they viewed police as playing a critical role in upholding structural inequality. This story also suggests that local politicians were responsible for instituting any meaningful reform that would have reshaped the relationship between the police and the black community.
Primary Research Question
What attempts did the black community in Albina make to reform policing and how were their efforts met? What were some key historical events that shaped police-community relations between African Americans and the Portland Police Bureau?
This article is a historical analysis that uses interviews, historical, and academic documents.
There were no limitations for this historical analysis.
The colonial metaphor applied to policing in black communities during the 1960s continued to be apt in the mid 1980s, despite any assumptions that the relationship between the police and African American communities had dramatically improved. When Bud Clark ran for mayor in the mid 1980s, for example, he was surprised to learn that “people were suspicious of the police. They saw them as an occupying army.” The three main demands the black community had pushed for throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in Portland — a reduction of police brutality, civilian oversight, and increased representation in police ranks — remained largely unrealized. The relationship between the Portland police and the Albina community remained contentious throughout those decades because every organized attempt to reform the police was met with swift and hostile resistance.
The colonial model is useful for understanding the historical continuities in police-community relations in Portland’s Albina District and in black urban communities nationwide. Black thinkers and activists of the 1960s explained police behavior as part of the colonization process that ghettoized black citizens, enforced their political and economic dependency, and thus led to the underdevelopment of black communities. The problem was not just a matter of individually prejudiced cops, but rather institutionalized racism within the entire criminal justice system — and within society as a whole. The police have been critically important agents of an oppressive structure that resisted change in Portland and cities nationally. Complicit politicians, perhaps despite good intentions, repeatedly thwarted the attempts by Albina residents to reform the police.
It is important to understand Portland’s recent history when working to improve police and community relations today. Residential segregation, urban renewal bulldozers, and police harassment and brutality prompted many black urbanites in Albina, and nationwide, to think of themselves as living in a colony subject to external rule. This framework can help us understand how the relationship among the police, local politicians, and the black community in Albina was characterized by external power and control as well as relative powerlessness among residents.