Black People Nearly Twice as Likely as Whites to Be Arrested at Portland Protests

Speakers address a crowd of over 1,000 protesters in Portland on July 31, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Local police in Portland are disproportionately arresting Black people at ongoing protests against, among other things, racial inequities within the criminal justice system, according to numbers obtained by Courthouse News.

State and local police in Portland have arrested over 550 protesters since mass protests began in Portland on May 29, sparked by outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Black people make up 11% of those arrested — almost double the rate of Portland’s Black population.

And although it’s possible that Black people are attending protests in the movement for Black lives at rates higher than their portion of Portland’s population, criminal justice experts say that factor alone doesn’t account for their increased likelihood of arrest.

“It is highly unlikely that a disparity this high is a result of composition of the protestors or criminal activity,” Dr. Mark Leymon, professor of criminology at Portland State University, said in an interview. “Research shows that people of color are not more likely to commit crime, especially in this context.”

According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 37,975 Black people living in Portland in July 2019. That’s 5.8% of Portland’s nearly 655,000 people. White people number approximately 461,592, or 70% of the city’s population. 

At protests between May 29 and Aug. 13, local police arrested 429 white people, 61 Black people, 36 Hispanic people, 11 Asian or Pacific Islanders and one Native American, according to numbers provided by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. Police did not categorize thirteen of the arrests made during that period.

Comparing the arrest numbers for Black and white people with their population numbers shows Black people are 1.73 times as likely (nearly twice as likely) to be arrested at Portland’s protests than white people. That calculation, called the relative rate index, is a common way of showing racial disparities.

Said another way, in order for the arrests police made to be distributed equally among Black and white people, there would have to be 173 Black people present for every 100 white people at Portland’s protests — if Portland’s population was equally split among Black and white people. Exact data showing the racial breakdown among protesters is unavailable. But the ratio described above doesn’t match the overwhelming presence of white people in over 80 nights of protests attended by crowds ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.

That means racism is likely in play, according to Leymon.

“We know from research that people of color, especially Black individuals, are much more likely to be perceived as dangerous,” Leymon said. “And so they are more likely to be arrested for low-level criminal activity — frivolous things — or for no criminal activity at all.”

“No accountability,” Demetria Hester, a prominent protester said upon hearing of the disparity in arrests. “This is exactly what we’ve been talking about for years.”

Hester survived an assault on a MAX light rail train by a white supremacist who went on to kill two men and seriously wound a third the day after assaulting Hester. She said she took the disproportionate arresting of Black people at protests as a warning from police.

“They’re trying to make an example of us and say ‘We’re arresting all these Black people for coming out and protesting to keep others from coming out,’” Hester said. “Like, ‘If you protest, this is what’s going to happen to you.’”

Newly elected Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced on Aug. 11 that his office would not prosecute the vast majority of protest arrests, and would instead focus on charges involving intentional violence like arson and assault. 

Schmidt said at the time that he hoped the policy would reduce arrests stemming from protesters simply being present at a protest police declare is illegal, rather than actively participating in criminal activity.

“We’re announcing this policy so it’s clear that those types of cases won’t be charged,” Schmidt said at the time. “That doesn’t say those arrests won’t happen. But it would be my hope that those types of arrests won’t happen.”

But that didn’t appear to be the outcome.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell released a statement immediately after Schmidt’s announcement, saying that Portland police would continue to “make arrests as necessary to protect the community.”

“As always, whether the District Attorney decides to charge cases we send to his office is up to him,” Lovell said in his statement.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner, refused multiple requests to comment on the racial disparity in arrests at protests calling for an end to that very problem.

Captain Tina Jones, spokeswoman for the Portland Police Bureau, objected to the use of census data to measure race.

“It does not reflect the current composition of the city and does not take into account those who visit or work here,” Jones said in an email. “Arrests are made based upon probable cause for criminal acts.”

But the city of Portland and Multnomah County, where it is located, have used Census numbers to calculate the same measurement referenced above — the relative rate index — to show that Black people are 4.4 times more likely to be arrested in Multnomah County than white people, according to a 2014 study, and 4.1 times more likely to have their charges prosecuted by the district attorney.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found in January that Portland police are twice as likely to search Black pedestrians and Black drivers during traffic stops than their white counterparts.

And arrest numbers are just the first step in a series of racially biased procedures that end up with Black people being six times more likely than white people to go to prison in Multnomah County.

“Everyone in the criminal justice system likes to point the finger at someone else for racial disparities,” Leymon said. “Cops say ‘We’re just arresting people who break the law.’ District attorneys say ‘We’re just prosecuting the cases you bring us.’ And judges say ‘We’re just sentencing the people you prosecute. But if you’re Black, every step through the criminal justice system increases your likelihood of going to prison.”

The numbers provided by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office showed the racial breakdown for arrests from May 29 through Aug. 13. There have been additional arrests since then by local police.

And the numbers don’t account for arrests made by federal agents sent to Portland as part of Operation Diligent Valor — which President Donald Trump said was necessary to protect federal buildings like the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse from “violent anarchists” who Trump accused of throwing fireworks, rocks and cans of soup at federal agents. 

Arrests made by federal agents are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland. Spokesman Kevin Sonoff said the office doesn’t track the race or ethnicity of people charged with crimes.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell have increasingly joined Trump in claiming the nightly protests are the work of a small group of white people bent on violence and destruction — and that they are no longer part of a movement against systemic racism.

“Enough is enough,” Lovell told reporters Aug. 5. “This is not forwarding the goals” of a movement against racism.

In a press conference the next day, Wheeler said protesters were playing into the hands of the president. Trump immediately used Wheeler’s words to justify the continued presence of federal agents in Portland.

“Don’t think for a moment that, if you are participating in this activity, you are not being a prop for the reelection campaign of Donald Trump,” Wheeler said in an Aug. 6 press conference. “Because you absolutely are. You are creating the B-roll film that will be used in ads nationally to help Donald Trump during his campaign. If you don’t want to be part of that, then don’t show up.”

In that context, Leymon says the racial disparity in protest arrests raises another question:

“If this isn’t about racial injustice issues, why are so many people being arrested who are Black?” Leymon asked.

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