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Police Accountability, the Legislature and the People: Senator Lew Frederick on the Issues

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State Sen. Lew Frederick
State Sen. Lew Frederick

By Lisa Loving

From the streets to the legislature, there are many fronts in the fight for police accountability. Oregon State Senator Lew Frederick and the Oregon Legislature’s People of Color Caucus this year have proposed three actions, including: prohibiting arbitrators from lessening disciplinary action against a law enforcement officer if the arbitrator and the law enforcement agency determine that the officer has committed misconduct; requiring the Attorney General to investigate and prosecute deaths and serious physical injuries due to uses of force by a law enforcement officer, “if the evidence dictates;” and demanding that the House Interim Committee on Judiciary immediately convene a bipartisan work group to recommend changes to the state’s laws regarding use of physical force or deadly physical force in making an arrest or in preventing an escape.

Hey Neighbor! spoke with Senator Frederick about the movement, the dynamics, and what the future holds.

Hey Neighbor!: Would it be fair to say within our region that these issues impact North and Northeast Portland more than other parts of the city? What do you think?

LF: Historically they definitely have, because the African American community has been historically located primarily in North and Northeast Portland, although that has changed significantly because of gentrification. Folks’ understanding of the police accountability issue has been very, very obvious certainly to the Black community in North and Northeast Portland for decades, and with the realization that no officer has ever been permanently dismissed for excessive use of force regarding an African American person in the state of Oregon.

They’re objecting to anyone who says they are abusing people by abusing them. 

Sen. Lew Frederick

HN!: Lew you’ve been a lawmaker for a long time now. Are there things about being a cop that would surprise the general public to find out?

LF: One of the biggest issues that we’re dealing with is that the general public has two different approaches with police officers — that’s probably because of the narrative and myths that the public has about law enforcement. Television actually acts as our mythology for law enforcement culture to some extent. So you have police officers who are considerate and compassionate who get very upset about some basic sort of human issue. And then you have police officers in those myths that solve the problem themselves, where they are the judge and the jury and they are the executioner on a lot of things — and both routes are put up as models for people as police officers. 

We really have a mixed response to police officers. I think that people often want a police officer who will take control of the situation, but they also want police officers to be compassionate and understand what the people in the community are going through. So you have Law and Order/Blue Bloods on television, trying to define what a police officer is supposed to be, and you have the community unclear about what we really want them to do. We want to have someone come to the rescue when something goes wrong, but we don’t want them to act as though they’re an occupying force. 

Add to that attitude what happened to Oregon as a result of these court cases in the mid-1970s that basically said police officers do not have to live in their communities. In fact my wife and I bought our house here in Portland in 1977 from a police officer who was now moving out to Gresham because he didn’t want to live in the neighborhood. In many cases the police officers cannot tell you the names of the people in the community. They can tell you the names of the people they’ve arrested, they can tell you the names of the people who they have had some sort of interaction with. But they can’t tell you the name of the woman who really knows gardening or other folks that are not part of the crime or law-enforcement component. That’s one of the things that I think people want to see, but they also don’t get.

The other thing that a lot of people don’t get, because of the mythology that’s been created, is that most of the police interaction with the general public has nothing to do with whether someone has a gun or not. It has to do with mental health issues and other mediation kinds of things. So we’ve created this mythology that every time a police officer goes out, they’re shooting their gun at somebody or somebody is shooting a gun at them. And that’s not the case either. That’s part of the problem. 

HN!: The thing that shocks me the most about what’s happening in the street right now is that I’m seeing officers do things that I never honestly believed I would ever see. Watching the police attack medics and beat them with batons, and watching the police actually teargas the insides of the medic tents. I don’t even know where to get started on the attacks on journalists? These all seem like issues, Lew, that are going to result in multi-million dollar legal settlements down the line. Am I imagining that?

The real issue is that officers are angry at people being out here objecting to how they handle them. That’s the problem. That’s the basic issue. 

Sen. Lew Frederick

LF: You’re not imagining that at all. It’s what we’ve seen in the past few months — especially the kind of attacks where officers say folks are not obeying megaphone orders to leave. I recently testified in a committee that officers are telling folks to leave — folks are walking, they’re sometimes running — but they’re moving in the proper direction and it’s not fast enough for the officers. That doesn’t make any sense to me — it’s just some real sense of control. “We want to control you no matter what and we’re gonna be angry at you for not following what we are asking you to do.”

The real issue is that officers are angry at people being out here objecting to how they handle them. That’s the problem. That’s the basic issue. The mayor and the police officers are out there because they are upset that someone is objecting to the way that they handle their profession. And so having that added to the start up of the night, law enforcement finds some excuse to be more violent — to attack people who are actually following their orders or in some cases just standing there. When I got hit by pepper balls downtown, I was standing with a group that was not doing anything. The police were being led by the feds — so the feds were even more willing to get into a fight. But we were standing there and they were spraying people for no reason at all. There’s not an attack going on, there’s nobody throwing rocks or anything like that, they decided that they needed to fire their weapons. 

So what you have is a couple of things. And if you’ll pardon me I’m going to go into a bit of a rant here. But it’s something that I’ve talked about quite a bit: They’re objecting to anyone who says they are abusing people by abusing them. 

What you have is folks who have no real sense of the humanity of people — on either side. They look across the street and see people that they cannot relate to at all. They see people who aren’t dressed like them, they’re of a different economic level as far as they’re concerned, and so the people across the street are looking at these automatons, these are people who have facemasks and look like they are storm troopers. They are looking at them saying those aren’t real people either, and so they get this antagonism that is already developed before they’re even in front of one another. Which makes no sense but it’s the kind of adolescent mentality that some people think they can justify, and so what we have is these folks out there just doing incredibly stupid things in my view. 

The classic thing to me is that you had people who were lining up with shields, some of the protesters standing there with gas masks and helmets and body armor. And the response by the police is that they were clearly under attack. But folks were wearing the stuff as a defense mechanism, they didn’t have any weapons, they were not attacking the police with anything — but the police response was if somebody’s wearing armor or holding a shield or a helmet then they’re obviously ready to come and attack us. But it was not the case.

HN!: One of the specific issues that people have been looking at in the current uprising is the role of the police officers’ union. The issue of the power of police unions around the United States to protect officers accused of wrongdoing is deep. A lot of people are pointing specifically to the police union as a main obstacle to reform in our city. What is your take on that?

LF: My take on it is a different one in some ways. I think it’s not so much the police union as it is the police culture. And that police culture has certainly evolved over time but it has always had, as one of the basic concepts, that the police were essentially more of an occupying force rather than community police — not really trying to protect and serve the whole community. They were there to control, to intimidate. And that’s part of the police culture. And as a result, the police union has picked up the culture and used it as their primary focus on how they deal with segments of the community. 

What we’ve actually seen is that police officers who were trained that way – we have not been able to make them understand the things that we want, and then at the same time support them psychologically, in their financial issues or their topical issues. So part of the problem is that the unions are basically doing what unions are supposed to do — which is protect union members. But “protect their union members” has become “protect them at all cost.” And they are not looking at any different philosophy or dealing with the community because that’s what their culture says they need to be doing. As far as addressing that — the union gets in the way by following what the police blue culture says it should do, and we need to be changing the culture.

HN!: Senator, you’ve been working hard on police accountability measures in the legislature. What is your feeling about the future of those efforts?

LF: The good news in the current legislative session is that we have a BIPOC caucus — Black, indigenous and people of color. There are nine of us now working on this. When I began in the legislature there was just me in the house — the only African American guy in the house. In the House and the Senate we now have nine people of color — we have four African Americans, four Latinos and one Native American. And when it comes to November, I believe that we will increase the number of people of color by at least two —  potentially four or five, but at least two for sure. 

As a result of that, the bills we’ve been able to get passed, the committees that we’ve been able to get organized, have managed to do some extraordinary things. They were things that I’ve tried to do over the years but couldn’t get past a simple threshold. And I’ve got to say that quite frankly, the death of George Floyd got us over that threshold. People no longer question whether there was an excessive use of force by police, question whether there was a real concern about the psychological impact of how police were dealing with things. The Breanna Taylor situation also reinforced that, and so did the other incidents that took place after that. People were no longer saying, “well they must’ve asked for it, or they must have run away from it.” They no longer use those excuses because the video was very clear. 

So, in beginning the process of looking at police accountability, I started talking about it in a very simple way: I said that I wanted to feel safe in my neighborhood, on my street and in my grocery store. I wanted to make it clear that if I didn’t feel safe, then the people I call who are supposed to help me feel safe should not add to my anxiety; they should not be people that I don’t feel safe with. That has fueled not only my effort but the efforts of James Manning and Janelle Bynum and Akasha Spence and the rest of the folks who are part of the caucus. And as a result we passed a number of bills in the last two special sessions. There will be another special session but probably not before the election. 

Find out more about Senator Frederick’s work online here.

NOTE: The Oregon Legislature POC caucus members are: Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon (D-Woodburn), Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Happy Valley), Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland), Rep. Akasha Lawrence Spence (D-Portland), Rep. Mark Meek (D-Oregon City), Rep. Andrea Salinas (D-Lake Oswego), Rep. Tawna Sanchez (DPortland), Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) and Sen. James Manning (D-Eugene).