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Tuesday, April 06, 2004  

Analysis: Portland police shooting predictable

In Portland, we recently had the second shooting of an unarmed African-American in just 10 months. For the record, the black population of Oregon is about two percent. Less than 4,000 black men between 15 and 29 reside in the region. (And, nearly all African-Americans in Oregon live in Portland, Salem or Eugene.) Yet, despite the tiny population of African-Americans, police stops and arrests of persons of color are extremely common. There are good grounds for attacking racial profiling here.

I haven't written about the latest police shooting before for several reasons. One of them is that I feel like I would just be repeating myself in regard to the Kendra James shooting. You may remember that she was a young, drug-addicted mother of two who was shot to death by an incompetent cop.

I have been busy looking into a local news story. A young African-American woman was shot and killed early this morning by the Portland police. So far, what is known is that the woman, Kendra James, 21, allegedly tried to drive off in a car that had been stopped.

I've also learned the woman has a history of drug abuse and may have been trying to avoid a check for warrants. She was shot once in the chest. James appears not to have been armed.

The main issue is whether the shooting was justified. From what I am aware of, it appears doubtful James would have escaped even if force had not been used. There were several police vehicles blocking the exit route.

She is survived by two small children.

Deja vu all over again.

The latest victim of a police shooting is a man with an impressive record of felony convictions and drug use. James Jahar Perez, 28, had nearly toxic levels of cocaine in his system and baggies of the substance stuffed in his mouth and pockets when shot by the police -- 24 seconds after he was told to get out of his car. Since the shooting occurred eight days ago, the city's minority citizens have expressed both outrage and fear.

There is a good fact-based argument to be made that this shooting should not have occurred. There doesn't seem to have been probable cause to stop Perez. Less than 30 seconds is not very long to give a driver to get out of his car. The two policemen Tasered him for three minutes after shooting him. The manufacturers of the Taser say they have never heard of anyone using a Taser that long. (The blast is supposed to last a few seconds.) The cop who fired the shots has a record of pulling his weapon on unarmed people. His psychological profile says he was borderline mentally for being hired as a policeman.

Which brings us to a second reason I have not written about this episode until now. Exasperation. Both with the police and some civil rights activists. Some people protesting the shooting want to deny that Perez was anything but a choirboy. Instead of going with the legitimate argument that the police over-reacted, these people are trying to fit a halo onto a head where it doesn't belong. Some say the evidence Perez used illegal drugs, his lengthy criminal record and strange lifestyle (no visible means of support) are all made up. Yet, any reasonable person looking at his life story would disagree. Ignoring the facts that are inconvenient to a political argument one wants to make is dishonest and undermines one's position. The activists making these claims have turned what should be a sober assessment into a bad joke.

The Oregonian, in the course of covering the Perez story, published a feature about the day-to-dayl fear of the police many African-Americans live in. Among the people interviewed was a middle-aged bureaucrat who has probably been stopped by cops scores of times in his 50-plus years. Jimmy Brown says the first occurred when he was a high school student with his leg in a cast and on crutches. The police said they were looking for someone who had stolen a television. Things did not improve over the years. Tigard, Oregon settled a lawsuit with Brown last year after falsely arresting him, roughing him up and claiming he had been driving under the influence. Tests showed he had no alcohol or other prohibited substances in his system at all. This man is the kind of person one could put forward as an upstanding citizen. Perez is not.

Does that mean the police were right to shoot a poster boy for wrongheadedness like Perez? Based on the information I've seen, it does not. Scott McCollister, the cop disciplined for killing Kendra James, is not the only incompetent one on the force. But, the protests should focus on the wrongful actions of those policeman, not pretending James Jahar Perez was an asset to the community, or even to his family. He was not.

6:55 PM