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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > October

Kendra James brings more fall out for City Hall

Mayor’s actions don’t keep community from continuing to organize around police problems. New organization born from community hearings on Kendra James case.

By Dave Mazza

Portland police officer Scott McCollister lied to police investigators about the fatal shooting of Kendra James on May 5, 2003. McCollister subsequently escaped punishment thanks to the cover-up of pertinent physical facts and testimony by the police bureau and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office. Those were some of the harshest findings of a community review of the Kendra James investigation. The loose coalition led by the Albina Ministerial Alliance also demanded that the city adopt recommendations by a non-profit group that recently examined bureau operations as well as an additional 35 recommendations for change in policy, procedures and operations made in the community review.

The findings were announced at a Sept. 6 community meeting at northeast Portland’s Maranatha Church that also served for the launching of a new community organization — the Alliance for Police and Community Accountability — that would channel community concern into constructive avenues of reform. This most recent blast of the Portland Police Bureau comes in the wake of more than a summer of controversy involving the bureau, including the highly critical independent review by the Police Assessment Resource Center, the resignation of Chief Mark Kroeker and the hiring of Assistant Chief Derrick Foxworth to fill Kroeker’s shoes only days before the Sept. 6 community meeting.

Although two months had elapsed since the Albina Ministerial Alliance announced they would review the police investigation, the Saturday meeting produced a turnout of over 400 people. Lower than hoped for by community organizers, the turnout still sent a strong message to Mayor Katz that recent changes at the top of the bureau and pledges of more change from the mayor were not enough to persuade the community to let go of this case. Several of the pastors made it clear that in particular, the appointment of Foxworth as chief was not going to silence the community.

“We’re not blind, we know he is African American,” Rev. Roy Tate, President of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, told members of the press attending the community meeting. “But just because we have a new chief doesn’t mean the culture of the bureau has changed.”

But the anger simmering just beneath the surface of the Sept. 6 meeting remained focused on the investigation of Kendra James’ death by bureau detectives. In a presentation lasting over one hour, the Alliance members responsible for reviewing the police investigation presented a list of problems they found with the detectives’ work, including a videotaped reenactment of the shooting that looked far different than a similar video presented by the police to show Officer McCollister’s difficulty in extricating himself from the moving vehicle.

The most telling criticisms of the police investigation came in three specific areas where the Albina Ministerial Alliance felt the detectives failed to follow through:

Conflicting testimony. According to the Albina Ministerial Alliance report, the testimony of Officer Scott McCollister changed after he had met with other officers at an Applebee’s restaurant a few days after the shooting. In the words of Rev. Tate, McCollister began “parsing” his words to “place himself in the car” and to avoid being pinned down too specifically about the sequence of events leading to the shooting of James. The report also found discrepancies in the testimony of other officers at the scene. A video produced by the Alliance showing a reenactment of the crucial 5-10 seconds of the incident underscored that the officers’ stories were not only at odds with their earliest statements but couldn’t have occurred within that time span.

Physical evidence doesn’t support police findings. The Alliance’s report found fault with the weighing of physical evidence in the investigation. The report alleges that the location of the spent shell from McCollister’s gun, the location of the wig pulled from Kendra James’ head and tossed to the ground by Officer McCollister, and the path traveled by the vehicle did not support the police version of events.

Official cover-up. The report’s authors accused the bureau and the district attorney’s office of intentionally or unintentionally covering up important leads, testimony and physical evidence in the investigation. The district attorney was charged with giving police officers involved in the shooting special treatment and privileges not extended to citizens. The report went on to accuse police officers not involved in the investigation of aiding the cover-up by not abiding by bureau policy and best practices.

The report offers up a long list of recommendations for addressing the problems related directly to the Kendra James case as well as more long-term strategies. Some of the recommendations offered include:

At a scene where there is the potential for deadly force, senior officers must develop a plan to de-escalate the situation.

No officer may put himself or herself in the vehicle of a suspect or fire into a suspect’s vehicle unless the suspect is firing.

The city must adopt an ordinance against police brutality.

Increase the number of weeks of training an officer receives from the current 10 to the 22 weeks recommended by the national law enforcement standards.

Require a 1-year post-training mentorship.

Expand cultural diversity training program.

Increase the size of the Citizen Review Committee of the Independent Police Review Division from 9 to 13 with community involvement in appointing all or some members.

Authorize the Citizen Review Committee to recommend discipline.

As Rev. Tate and others acknowledged, recommendations to end police misconduct have been made to the city before with little result. That was why, Tate asserted, there was a need for a better organized community to take on these long-term reforms of the criminal justice system. In an effort to capture the momentum coming out of the community meetings, the organizers announced the formation of the Alliance for Community and Police Accountability.

The creation of this new organization is significant in that it is being shaped by the African American and Latino communities as something independent of the city. There is growing awareness in those communities and elsewhere within Portland that the city has effectively derailed serious discontent by co-opting elements of those communities’ leadership in roundtables and other forms of promised access to decision-makers. At this early stage at least, organizers seem willing to cast their nets far wider than in the past and allow for perspectives and strategies that are farther from center than before.
Whether it stays that open remains to be seen. Mayor Katz has demonstrated her expertise at divide and rule in the past and will continue to do so for the remainder of her time in office. If this embryonic organization can weather her efforts to pull its teeth, residents throughout the city could see an important shift in the political landscape occur that goes well beyond obtaining justice for Kendra James.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003