City councilors Monday heard from members of the Racial Equity Steering Committee, which unveiled a series of recommendations to improve racial equity and root out systemic racism in Portland. Screenshot / Zoom

The City Council will hold a workshop soon to begin to digest a 65-page report from the Racial Equity Steering Committee that makes recommendations on how to create a more equitable city.

The 13-member panel was created by the council last September in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement locally. The committee was asked to look at the city’s approach to public safety, the expanding role of police officers and how the city interacts with agencies and organizations in the name of public safety, along with ways city public safety policies, structures and procedures impact Black people and other people of color.

The group met 25 times over the last eight months.

“We debated on issues that were very contentious. Tackling the issue of race, especially in the times we are in, is not an easy thing,” said committee co-chair and at-large City Councilor Pious Ali.

Committee Co-chair Lelia DeAndrande advised councilors to “stay forward-focused” as they begin reviewing the group’s recommendations and not to get hung up on the details.

“I’ve seen up close and help lead a lot of organizations go through this work,” said DeAndrande, a sociologist with a background in racial equity work. “I know your next steps are going to be incredibly difficult. We can give you the ideas, but how you act on them is most critical.”

Among the committee’s ideas is regular equity assessments and anti-bias training for police officers and other city staff and that police officers be screened for personal prejudices, sexism, xenophobia and other types of discriminatory belief systems.

The panel would like fewer police patrols in places with high populations of Blacks, people of color and other marginalized groups. It recommends doing away with the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, which reviews internal investigations at the police department, and implementing a better tracking system for police conduct and behavior. Additionally, it recommends a special crisis team, rather than police officers, be the first to respond to calls involving homelessness, substance misuse and mental health.

The report said the city should: advocate for diversion and restorative justice programs for people charged with minor offenses, support policies and legislative initiatives that regulate bail and court fines for those from marginalized communities, create an appeals process for individuals with criminal trespass orders and remove criminal background questions on employment applications.

Three new groups could continue racial equity work into the future, the report says: a department of racial equity, a permanent board of racial equity and an ad-hoc racial equity task force. The department would “analyze city policies, programs and practices with the goal to eradicate any structural or institutional racism within the city government structure,” as well as hear complaints about racial discrimination and publish a report of the racial demographics in the city. The task force, comprised of city staff and community members, would ensure policies and practices within the city’s Health & Human Services Department are racially equitable.

In terms of policy changes, the committee would like to see departments, notably Health & Human Services and law enforcement, publish racial demographics annually. It advises the city to adopt a framework for a more equitable COVID-19 response for homeless people. It says the city should increase the number of its employees from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups and reserve 10% of all city contracts to businesses owned by people in those groups.

It also would like the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity to partner with local banks and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to help businesses owned by Black, Indigenous and people of color.

The city could improve what it does to shelter unhoused people and how it helps those looking for affordable housing, the committee said. It recommends the city cover the down payments for historically racial disadvantaged residents who have housing choice vouchers and qualify to purchase homes.

Lastly, the committee directs city staff to rename select Portland streets after local and national figures to “more fully represent Portland’s diverse communities,” work with Creative Portland and local artists to create permanent murals or other art pieces that memorialize victims of racist crimes and sit down with Black POWER (Portland Organizers Working to End Racism) to discuss the demands made during last summer’s protests.

It is easy, DeAndrande said, to see racism happening off in the distance, but “it is so much more difficult to see how our activity, our role is supporting (systemic racism).”

Understanding that, she said, is going to be the big challenge for the council moving forward.

Committee member Kate Knox wished the council success and courage as they “dig into this report.”

“We recommended some really big things,” she said. “We talked about that a lot, whether we should go big and have you have the conversations we’ve been having or try to tailor it a little bit more. We really felt like the moment called for big.”

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