March 4, 2010

Mediator helping police, Sudanese resolve tensions


— By

Staff Writer

The Department of Justice is again working with the Portland Police Department, but this time it's the community relations division trying to help improve ties between police and the Sudanese community.

A mediator with the federal agency has made contact with members of the Sudanese Community Association and with police officials. The goal is to create an environment where both sides are able to discuss the conflict with the goal of resolving tensions.

''Our basic work is to come into a community to bring conciliation and restoration of peace, where there have been issues based on race, color or national origin,'' said George Henderson, legal counsel for the agency's Community Relations Service.

He said department rules prevent him from confirming the department's presence in Portland or any specifics about who contacted the department and what issues it has identified.

However, representatives from the Sudanese community and police confirmed the agency's involvement.

The last time the Department of Justice sent someone to work with the Portland Police Department it was far less amicable.

In 2002, the agency's civil rights division was assigned to Portland to investigate whether the police force had a pattern or practice of violating civil rights. The agency was asked to investigate in hopes of restoring trust in the police following a series of high-profile excessive force cases.

The exhaustive investigation spanned two years and concluded that there was no institutional pattern or practice of civil rights violations. It did, however, propose a number of improvements and ''best practices'' that the department adopted.

The community relations division of the Department of Justice -- formed in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights Act -- has no investigative or prosecutorial powers. It is called upon to heal rifts within communities, but works behind the scenes to recommend practices and bring community leaders together, Henderson said.

''We don't come to bring a solution. We come to help the parties reach a solution through a neutral process,'' he said.

Henderson said about one third of the agency's cases involve law enforcers and others involved in the administration of justice, one third involve schools and students and the rest relate to a variety of other institutions.

In fiscal year 2005-06, the latest year for which data are available, the Community Relations Service worked on conflict resolution in 979 instances nationally, including at Bates College in Lewiston.

In that case, school administrators sought assistance after racial and ethnically critical graffiti was found in a dorm and there were allegations that college security was engaged in biased policing.

Members of the Sudanese community have expressed frustration over the past year about the unsolved murder of a Mercy Hospital security guard, who was Sudanese, and other crimes in which Sudanese were victims.

Then, police officers shot and killed David Okot, a 26-year-old Sudanese man, on April 25. Police said Okot refused to show them his hands and then pointed a gun at them, leading police to shoot him in what the state attorney general determined last week was a justified use of deadly force.

Shortly after the shooting, police were arresting a suspect near Fox Street and Franklin Arterial when they were confronted by a number of hostile young men calling the police ''murderers,'' taunting a police dog and jumping on a car the police were trying to tow, police said.

Police say they decided to release a cruiser video of the incident to a television station to show the nature of the confrontation police were facing.

Many Sudanese people saw it differently. They felt the video was released to show Sudanese people in a negative light, and that it had the effect of maligning an entire community with the actions of a few, some of whom were not Sudanese.

For some people, the incident overshadowed a series of overtures by Police Chief James Craig, who promised to work with the Sudanese community to improve relations.

John Branson, an attorney for the Sudanese Community Association, said in a letter to Craig in August, that he was retained to represent Sudanese community members ''in connection with historic and ongoing differential treatment they have experienced at the hands of the Portland Police Department.''

Branson declined to comment on the Justice Department's involvement. However, he noted in his letter that Sudanese community members planned to meet with city leaders as well as representatives of the Justice Department and Attorney General's Office.

Branson said the meeting had not yet occurred.

Craig said the Justice Department has been involved in a mediation role.

''It hasn't been negative. It's been all positive,'' Craig said, noting that police officials and a Justice Department representative have held meetings.

The man assigned to the Portland situation is Azekah Jennings, senior conciliation specialist in the Justice Department's Boston office. Jennings is a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Virgin islands who now helps governments, organizations and community groups resolve tensions.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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