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Police Forfeit Benefit of Doubt Argument

Commitment to accountability is what’s needed

By Lakayana Drury

Our city made national news with the explosive release of text messages between a police lieutenant and leader from Patriot Prayer, an alt-right group with white supremacist sympathies. Was this an egregious breach of protocol or just a misinterpretation of standard conduct? It depends on who you ask.

I spoke with a police officer who said there weren't enough facts to determine the situation. I spoke with community members who sent me articles showing that this was just standard police procedure. I spoke with others who were alarmed but not at all shocked. What concerns me most was how quickly and confidently people were willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to police.

Who is afforded the benefit of the doubt in our country? At face value it would seem that everyone should be afforded the benefit of the doubt. But when we take a closer look we see that the benefit of the doubt is closely tied to privilege and dominant culture.

In light of the text incident, I was alarmed by the number of people who were willing to give the Portland Police Bureau the benefit of the doubt. Considering the history of Portland as a safe-haven for white supremacists, the fact that the police bureau is under a Department of Justice settlement for excessive use of force, and its troubled history of race relations, why are Portland police given the benefit of the doubt that this was just another gross misunderstanding?

The fact is that black people and young black men in particular are never given the benefit of the doubt in our country. Trayvon Martin was not given the benefit of the doubt when he was walking home with a bag of skittles and ice tea, minding his own business. Tamir Rice was never given the benefit of the doubt when he was shot and killed by the police in a park in Cleveland, Ohio before it was later discovered that the suspicious object he was holding was a toy gun.

Quanice Hayes was not given the benefit of the doubt as he crouched down on all fours here in Portland. Jermaine Massey was not given the benefit of the doubt when he was speaking on the phone with his mom in a Portland hotel lobby. Black people are never afforded the benefit of the doubt; not at Starbucks, not when we are holding our personal belongings, not when we are in school. So why are we so willing to be lenient with the police and willing to consider the situation and facts when that same right is not afforded to black people and people of color? From jokes about shooting black people, to use of force when other options are available, the Portland Police Bureau is continually given the benefit of the doubt. In the larger scale of society, white people and white men in particular and white culture as a whole are also always given the benefit of the doubt. Whether it be clothing that masquerades with racist imagery or politicians that make racially charged comments or white people who commit crimes, the benefit of the doubt is always extended to them immediately and insulates them from criticism.

On the other hand, black people are almost always presumed guilty or in the wrong. For whites, the benefit of the doubt is a matter of a slap on the wrist or jail time, for blacks, it can often be life or death. I challenge us as a community to replace that benefit of the doubt with the commitment of accountability. The benefit of the doubt is an unearned privilege that must be rejected and further damages the relationships within the community. Accountability holds us responsible and unites communities.

The commitment of accountability means that instead of asking, “In this situation, was the officer overly friendly with a leader of an alt-right group?” to instead asking, “How does PPB hold its officers accountable and reform policies to stand against white supremacy?”

Accountability isn’t just about disciplining the individuals who committed the act as much as it is about changing the policies, systems and culture that gives those individuals the power to act in the first place. The benefit of the doubt protects individuals whereas the commitment of responsibility challenges institutions and systems and holds individuals responsible for their actions.

I am less concerned with the individual officer in this incident and more concerned with how PPB plans to change policies and institutional culture so that it firmly stands against white supremacy. I am less concerned with the officers on the street and more concerned with the policies that shape how they respond to calls and what behaviors are tolerated. The benefit of the doubt focuses on intent and commitment to accountability centers on the impact.

The impact of the “text incident” is that it fuels the narrative that PPB is not to be trusted in communities of color and that they are colluding with or at the least sympathetic to alt-right organizations. Many in the city are working to improve relationships between the police and the community including myself, and events like this make our work that much more challenging and lead us to question how invested police are to this process. The Portland Police Bureau must take the commitment to accountability seriously and focus not only on explaining the context of the messages and disciplining those involved but more importantly make a clear statement on where it stands in regards to white supremacy. They should not shy away from the incident nor deflect blame but step boldly into the situation and firmly clarify where they stand.

The community should not have to doubt whether its police force stands against white supremacy and to have any doubt should alarm us all. PPB must focus on policy reform, transparency and work culture to change the current power dynamics. At every opportunity they should reject the benefit of the doubt argument which weakness trust and does not address institutional racism and bias. White community members must also reject the benefit of the doubt plea and not hand it out whenever controversy arises. The police must realize the racial roots of this benefit and realize that this benefit is not extended to their black neighbors.

The benefit of the doubt argument is tone deaf and privileged. White people must be allies to communities of color as we work to dismantle systems of oppression and demand the commitment of accountability from our institutions and leaders. We in the black community do not want the benefit of the doubt either. We want to benefit from life: To work, play, sit, talk and live like everyone else. That benefit starts with a commitment to accountability.

Lakayana Drury teaches social studies at Rosemary Anderson High School and is a community activist on efforts to build more positive relationships between young black men and law enforcement.


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