Tom Potter spoke at length to No on 9 Remembered about his support for the LGBTQ community and efforts to change police culture during his tenure as a Portland Police Officer (starting in 1966), Chief of Police (1990-1993) and Mayor (2005-2009).
Police culture is still a huge issue in policing. When I first became a cop, I believed everything the bureau told me. But then the riots started in the late 1960s. Patrolling what was then called Union Ave (later renamed MLK), I heard the pop-pop of firearms. Up and down from NE Fremont, there were fires everywhere in the Black neighborhood. It was pretty scary. That first summer, I thought, “What’s wrong with them? Why are they doing this?”
I remember when a carload of young Black men yelled out their window at me, “We’re going to kill you, pig!” I asked myself, Why me? I realized, it wasn’t me; it was the uniform.
I started paying attention – I’d often hear the “n word” being used by my colleagues over the police radio. It took me several years to understand: it’s not what’s wrong with them; it’s what’s wrong with us. I went from being a typical cop – “what’s wrong with these people!” Now I understand, they’re angry at what we are doing.
Police culture drives police behavior. There are laws, procedures, trainings – but police culture remains one of the dominant ways of explaining to officers what their job is. Officers tend to narrow their personal friends to other officers. They tend to reinforce the culture with war stories of us versus them – that’s a strong element of the culture, us versus them.
The dominant theme is, it’s our job to enforce the law. I actually stopped using the phrase law enforcement; it’s tied so closely to that old paradigm of doing things. Not being part of the community, only enforcing the laws in the community.
I wanted to begin to change the culture of policing. I started right away having cultural awareness training, going to roll calls myself as chief to convey: this is the way it’s going to be.
Community policing was the closest model I could see for changing the norms.
In community policing, our job is to initiate and build strong relationships, find out the communities’ needs and work with them on those needs. Not just cop stuff.
Back then I knew that issues around gays and lesbians were a hot topic. I used to listen to the so-called humor. It’s always one of our protected classes who are the subject of the humor. And then those attitudes get integrated into police behavior.
I spent 18 months developing a plan of transition to community policing. We engaged over 300 people from the outside, to look at what could change. It was a five-year plan, approved by the City Council, that looked at elements of police culture, identified what we can do to promote change.
I was there for the first three years of implementation. But change in government comes slowly. Some felt, he’s not moving fast enough. But if you don’t give people the tools and the time to change, the change won’t stick. I wanted the organization to be flexible enough to change with the times, to understand their core mission and values.
Culture is a set of shared values, views, and behaviors. Culture takes a long time coming and it takes a long time to go. We had a great opportunity. If we had kept to that plan and become more engaged with the community and developed more relationships, it wouldn’t be the way it is today.
I have talked to almost every chief since about this. There’s no Chief School; you just get promoted. I’ve tried to pass on what I’ve learned. You take your set of issues and worldview into the job. Some of those worldviews are insidious and can sometimes overrule law and the rules of the organization. It’s harmful.
As a police officer, my daughter Katie had to be part of the organization when I was chief. When your Dad’s the boss they’ll let you know what they think of that guy upstairs. She was ahead of the curve in terms of being an out lesbian police officer.
The last couple of years before she retired from 27 years with the Portland Police Bureau involved enduring an internal affairs investigation because of the hostile work environment she was subjected to for speaking up.
A lot of those cultural things we wanted to change haven’t been changed completely. I feel like I failed because I didn’t get it done. Being a change agent, you have to give it your full attention.
Now we’ve divided the force. There are not enough officers and too many past transgressions. How do we make sure they understand they work for the community? How do we shift their focus to helping people solve the problems our community faces? Watching some of the Black Lives Matters marches, I thought BLM folks mostly did really well to contain themselves. Unfortunately, there were others coming in to disrupt.
There’s a mural in the police headquarters. It’s a gun belt. The artists had talked to officers, and when they talked about their job, they said it was best represented by the gun belt. I went to the Mayor, Bud Clark, and said this is the opposite of the change we were trying to make. Bud said it was paid for by public art funds, and in that program, artists get the final say. To my knowledge, the gun belt mural is still there.
Even with the ongoing resistance of police culture to change and the current crisis of division in our country, reflecting on Ballot Measure 9 Tom says:
We tend to look at situations and say it’s never going to change, but given the opportunity and good information, and the chance to do something better, I think people can change. From my positive side, I want to think we can use all these hard things that happen as lessons for the future; not just to learn from them, but to grow.
One of the pieces of evidence he offers about people’s ability to change is a story about his own mother:
I learned a lot of negative stuff as a child from my mother, who was a born-again Southern Baptist. But she enjoyed riding in the Rose Festival’s Grand Floral Parade with me when I led it off as police chief in the lead car. She’d grown up poor, raised five children basically solo, and had a thing about how she would love, someday, to be in a parade with people cheering. I got to give her that experience.
I’ll always remember one year when the Grand Floral Parade turned the corner by 10th and Stark. The gay men were on the corner in their lawn chairs, and one of them – all he had on was a silver-colored jock strap and a white robe – picked up a rose and gave it to me. My mom was watching all this. I gave her the rose.
About a block later, she said, “Tommy, who was that man?” I told her, “He’s being himself and he wanted to tell me Thank you, which meant so much to me.”
I was glad my mom saw that. Parades are good times for impressing on people, we’re all pretty much all alike.
Read Tom’s recollections about Ballot Measure 9, the impact of his decision to become the first police chief to march in Gay Pride, and the steps he took “to ensure that every citizen has the right to live their life free from the fear of crime and free from any governmental interference in their right to think, express themselves and live as they choose.”
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.