Katie Potter spoke at length to No on 9 Remembered about her 27 years as a Portland Police Officer who came out publicly as a lesbian during her father Tom Potter’s tenure as chief of police, a time that coincided with Ballot Measure 9. Her experience reflects both the potential for change and the resistance to change within police culture.
This transcript of Katie’s insights has been edited for clarity and length.
I did a little bit of reading to transport myself back to that time, and watched the movie Ahead of the Curve about Curve magazine [a documentary about lesbian visibility].
I was able to go deep to this place inside of me that’s been kind of quiet for a while, about our struggle as a community and all of the things that we’ve gone through. My own personal experience around that time was pretty intense – probably the most intense, most challenging time period in my life.
My dad, of course, was chief in 1990. He became chief right at the time that I first came out publicly as a lesbian – and as a lesbian cop in particular. I had only been on the job for a year. There were shockwaves in so many different directions. In the community, in many positive ways. And then internally at the police bureau, in not such positive ways.
There were people internally that did support me. I had friends there, and there were people that I didn’t know that came up to me and said, “Hey, I’m so glad you did this, because now it doesn’t have to be like this.” Saying, “Now we can talk about our lives.”
And then there were really hard things around that time period, too.
It was 1990 when I came out, then the Just Out and The Oregonian coverage in 1991, and then 1992 was Ballot Measure 9. All of that was going on in the larger community, and then at work…
Because I came out a year into my career, I got a certain reputation at the police bureau. I had friends around me just about almost everywhere I went. There were some who might not have agreed with everything I represented, but they were friendly, loving human beings. I can get along with people who have very divergent views from me, being really respectful and listening to each other.
But there are plenty of folks at the police bureau, that’s just not in their reality. So I had quite a few negative experiences overall internally. All the way through my career to the end – the bitter end, as I call it.
My car was vandalized on one of the Gay Pride days. It was parked in the police parking lot.
Some friends of mine took me in the men’s locker room – there were caricature drawings being made of me in there.
After walking in the Pride parade one year, I was later at a Precinct on-duty. An officer walked into an adjacent room, not seeing me, and told two other officers that working the Pride parade was the worst duty of his career.
As my Dad and I walked along the parade route, officers would turn their backs on us. And these are my coworkers.
Fabrication was not a problem for some people in those days, in my work environment. I had the Public Information Officer [PIO] call me, because a police officer had told journalists that there was an internal affairs investigation going on because I and my then partner had been at some party… that there had been some sort of love triangle and shots were fired.
That was a completely fabricated story. But the PIO had to call me so that I could deny it, so that he could deny it to the reporters.
Somebody also called a reporter to say that my dad had HIV/AIDS and that’s why he was going be retiring in 1993. The reporter said it was somebody within the police who said that.
And then just being a woman, too. There was one time I went on a call where the male officer had called for cover, and he’s like, “Well, if I’d known they were going to send a woman I wouldn’t have called for cover.” That stuff was okay back then.
Towards the end of my career my sergeant asked me what I thought of the environment in our unit. The mission statement was on the wall, how we were going to treat people and respect them and all that. I shared my opinion with him, which I was known to do.
I said, “Well, I think we’re not living up to our ideal.” Our job was to do background investigations on people who wanted to become police officers. My coworkers would call candidates pussies if they didn’t have a manly enough job before applying to be a police officer. I felt it was outrageous. But they don’t see it as outrageous up there. The women officers in that part of the organization were generally ignored.
After that conversation, I spent the next two years being targeted by those folks, to the point where I finally asked for help from upper management, and even from people outside of the police bureau just to try to gather some strength. As a result of that, these folks that I worked with left a whistle on my desk.
It was so bad. The environment, the cultural environment, was really not good.
[Decades earlier] there was a point when I was ready to leave the organization. I had gone up to get my keys and radio, and the desk officer turned his back on me. He was helping everybody in front of me, and then I got up there and he turned his back and walked away. I had to go around and get my own keys and radio. It’s not a huge thing all by itself but it was a final straw moment for me.
I turned around and walked out of the precinct and called my Dad. I said, “I’m ready to quit. I don’t know if I can do this.” He just talked to me calmly like he does, about all of the good that can come of this. He tried to bolster me up by reminding me about my own strength, supporting me in protecting myself and being who I am.
Why I Stayed
I stayed in my job all those years because I love people. I’m a direct service person. My dad kept encouraging me to promote into management. I kept telling him there’s no way I am going to let my career be about working with the people inside this institution. It’s just not my thing.
What sustained me was talking with citizens in the community, trying to help them with whatever problem they were experiencing, working together to try to solve something. Some people looked at me as, Well, you’re just another government person. I’m like: Yeah, but I actually care. If there is something I can do, I’d love to do it. Let’s figure out what we can do together to help the situation.
I spent a number of years working in the vulnerable adult and elder crimes unit. I taught classes to folks with developmental disabilities on how to be safe with the police, providers, and in the community. That was my favorite job of my entire career – and it had nothing to do with rolling around in a police car. Man, did I meet the best people doing that job! It felt like it was a really good use of my time. It provided good information on how to stay safe to a very vulnerable population.
I made sure that I was able to be in direct service positions where the joy and the fulfillment that I get out of those types of interactions could be accessible to me.
I could never have done what my Dad did. If he had not been the person at the helm during the Ballot Measure 9 campaign, I think a lot of things would have been different in that time. He was the one who started the community advisory group. I thought it was such a cool idea that this was happening. I would go to the meetings as a patrol officer because I wanted to listen to what people were saying, to hear what was brought forward by the community.
There were those amazing moments, like when young people would get a hold of me. They’d call me at the precinct. They’re trying to figure out how to talk to their family [about being queer], they didn’t know about any support groups. So I would meet with them and talk with them.
This one young lady in particular, I met with her mother and became friends with their family. They were a Catholic family, so her mother really struggled with it for a little while. But she loved her daughter, and she wanted to try to figure it out. So we just hung out a lot. It was really awesome to be a part of that experience of witnessing her change, to where she could really be there for her daughter.
There was another gal that was a foster kid. She ended up being placed with a super religious, far right family. She had called me a couple of times, and I gave her some resource information.
And then one day I showed up at work, and I saw a person outside of the precinct who looked like a queer kid. I didn’t know what they were doing there, so I pulled into the parking lot, went in and started changing into my uniform. Then the desk officer said, “Hey, there’s a person out front waiting to talk to you.”
It was this 15-year-old kid. She told me she was struggling in her home environment because she knew that they were anti-gay. I could tell she was one of these kids that was not going to be okay if she didn’t find some support. Then she told me she had run away.
This was one of those times where I didn’t like what I had to do. But I had to take her to the Juvenile Detention Hall (JDH). I didn’t handcuff her. I had her sit in the front seat next to me, instead of in the backseat, and we talked a lot. I explained what I had to do and the process she was going to go through. I tried to give her some good information about how to advocate for herself for another foster placement.
And as a result of that incident, the foster family wrote a letter to my Dad, who was the chief at the time. They didn’t acknowledge the relationship between my Dad and me; they just argued about how inappropriate it was for me to give queer-positive resources to their foster daughter because it was against their religion.
We wondered, is this a ploy of some sort to see if he’ll do the right thing? He had to file an internal affairs complaint against me on behalf of the family. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office was brought in to investigate the complaint, since my Dad was the head of the police bureau. It was probably good that the police bureau couldn’t be the investigators on this because a lot of cops didn’t like me.
It was against policy to have somebody you were taking to JDH sit in the front seat and not be handcuffed. But I just thought, if I get in trouble for that, then I’m in trouble for doing the right human thing. I’m okay with that.
I didn’t actually get in any trouble, but I knew it was something I had to go through because of who I was.
Racism in Police Culture
It has always been my opinion that the police are the ones that need to change around race relations. On those types of issues, we are the holdouts. Police dig in their heels about so many things.
I don’t think that we would be where we are today if police organizations a long time ago had started making the changes that they need to make culturally and internally, in order to address the clear disparities with regards to Black and Brown people. There just aren’t any questions about the reality of those disparities, and there haven’t been for decades.
Police organizations are organizations built on white supremacy. We used to have discussions up in the personnel division around race and white privilege, and most people up there hated the term white privilege.
One guy, generally a progressive thinking person, we got along well – but he really hated the term white privilege. He grew up in a trailer park with his single mom; he experienced abuse as a young person. And he felt like he didn’t have any privilege.
And so I said, “I want you to know that I hear how hard this was for you. How hard your mom had to work. And that no matter what she did, these bad things still happened to you. That was hard and horrible for you.
And then I said, “Now let’s just add that you’re Black on top of it.” Not to say that his experiences weren’t bad, but there’s a whole other layer of things to consider when you add race and racism.
It was nice to be able to have that kind of conversation with someone who could hear it. But that’s super uncommon.
Most cops have the same refrain: I’m not a racist, I treat everybody the same. I would look at them and say, “Well, I’m a racist. I try to treat everybody the same. But I’m not kidding myself that in some moments, thoughts and associations come into my head that I don’t want to have in my head.”
“They’re there because of where I grew up and how I grew up and all of the whiteness that I’m always surrounded by. I don’t want to be that way. But I am and I have to work at being aware of all of that. So, it’s amazing to me that you don’t have any of that going on your head.”
They would look at me like I was crazy, like I was a nutcase. I think that that’s how most of the people in the police bureau think of me, because I have such divergent views.
I feel like a confession is in order. There was a time, decades ago, after one of the shootings in Portland of a Black man by a white police officer. I knew the officer involved and I knew he was a good guy. I remember sitting on my Dad’s lawn, talking about it. I was like: Dad this guy has such a good heart. I just I don’t believe that race played a role in it, blah blah blah…
He pushed me a little bit, but he didn’t say, you know your thinking’s really stupid. He just took in what I had to say and let me know what he believed. We disagreed on that day, but it made me think.
It made me start doing some reading on unconscious bias. Later I read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and I started thinking about how even people like me, or like that officer – it’s not about the conscious thoughts.
I’ve seen a lot of those videos of police shootings of Black people. And I think, if I were the person sitting in that car saying, I have a concealed weapons permit and moving very slowly to show it, I would never be shot. They’re told to show their insurance card and when they reach to the glove box to get it, they get shot for that.
I had to go through my own process to get to a place of some level of consciousness. I’m not saying I’m totally there. I’m just saying I’ve been working on it for a while.
For most of the folks there, there’s an unwillingness to go into certain spaces in their thinking about themselves.
Justice is not Just Criminal Justice
Mostly the work begins right here. You have to acknowledge that we have things inside of us, to be conscious of and then battle against. If you can do that, if we could do that, race and community relations would be so much better.
But it seems like a super hard thing for cops to do. It’s hard for me to understand. The majority of the people are going into this career because they actually do want to help people. I think that’s the truth. I just don’t think they understand what helping people looks like sometimes.
One of the things I’ve always wondered about is, people enter this career because they believe in justice. Well, guess what? Social justice is a part of justice – it’s not just about criminal justice. It stuns me that’s not better understood.
Of course, if you put the pieces together around upholding white supremacy and the benefit of maintaining that, I sort of understand it intellectually.
I had to accept that I could never be the one to bring officers along in their thinking, cause I did try. I became the kind of person that really couldn’t do the work there because I’m just angry about the whole internal environment. It is so painful.
I was looking at the Facebook comments recently of some people that I used to work with. I thought, I could just cry listening to you. For everything that you’ve been on the receiving end of, and all the harm that’s done by resistance to change.
When that change could just open them to so much more goodness, and make their jobs so much easier and make our community so much safer – it’s just heartbreaking to watch the continued unraveling, because that resistance is so strong.
Read Katie’s recollections about Ballot Measure 9, including the steps both she and her father, the Chief of Police, took in response to the dangers the LGBTQ community faced.
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.