ACLU forum about EPD’s anti-bias policy sparks discussion among citizens and minority leaders

The Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union” hosted a Civil Conversation at the Eugene Public Library Thursday evening. The union met to discuss  the Eugene Police Department’s efforts to reduce bias and discrimination against minorities.

The featured speakers were Eric Richardson, president of the Lane County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Juan Carlos Valle, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Lane County.

Valle and Richardson spoke passionately about bias they have experienced themselves, and heard of from members of the community.

Valle addressed the white members of the audience and said, “You did not come into the room thinking ‘I’m going to be discriminated against, thrown to the ground, deported.’ But that is how many Latinos feel.'”

Richardson referenced the ongoing riots in Ferguson, Missouri, referring to a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

“African American youth, in a lot of places, are under siege,” Richardson said. “The feeling is that there’s always an ‘us against them’ mentality.”

Valle referenced community issues regarding police bias against race, though Valle said many Latinos are afraid to bring these issues directly to the police department because of  a “fear of retaliation.”

Valle relayed several incidents of unfair treatment, such as a Latino driver who was pulled over because his license plate light was too bright, a Latino youth who was stopped and questioned about whether or not he was carrying drugs and police commanding a Latino to “go back where you came from.”

He even shared personal testimony of when an officer once told him, “Your kind pisses me off.”

EPD is in the process of developing an anti-bias policy that would prohibit officers from stopping someone solely based on their race, sexual orientation, ethnic group, economic status and other protected classes.

Valle said that the new anti-bias policy lacks accountability, because it relies on the officer self-reporting biased activity.

The policy states that if a citizen tells an officer that they feel they have been targeted based on bias, the officer should notify a supervisor. Valle, Richardson and audience members didn’t believe this policy would be effective in reducing biased police stops. Valle was unhappy that while he was a former member of the Police Commission, the commission reversed a decision to record and collect data on all police stops.

Afterward, audience members joined in a heated discussion about EPD.

One member of the audience, Mary Leighton, said that the problem was unconscious bias.

When Leighton was a teacher, parents complained that teachers weren’t calling on minorities. Because of the complaints, the school district started gathering data on classroom activity, and the teachers realized that they were in fact ignoring minorities.

“Once we started counting, (the bias) couldn’t be unconscious anymore.” Leighton said, “I’m willing to accept that police aren’t doing the wrong thing on purpose,” but that EPD must start collecting data on stops.

ACLU president David Fidanque defended EPD, saying they are doing better than many other departments when it comes to reducing racial bias.

Several people directed questions at Police Chief Pete Kerns, but he declined to speak because he wasn’t an invited member of the panel. However, he said, “Race is not the priority, crime-fighting is.”

Written by Rebecca Brewster.

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