Portland mayoral candidate Bud Clark observed in the mid-1980s that the city’s African American population was “suspicious of the police” and saw the Portland Police Bureau “as an occupying army”. Clark’s consternation concerning the feelings of the black community of Portland captures the essence of the relationship between the black community and the police, not only in Portland, but also across the country and throughout history. Historically, black Americans were subjected to a system of crime and punishment that was wildly different from the system experienced by white Americans. It is no wonder Clark found black Portlanders to be “suspicious of the police” when in their distant and more recent past they witnessed two systems of crime and punishment; with the one they experienced being corrupt, unjust, and discriminatory.
After the Civil War, and especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Congress and the federal government largely abandoned efforts to enforce the civil and political rights of African Americans in the former Confederacy, white political elites in the South designed a criminal justice system that kept much of the Southern black population enslaved and disenfranchised. Historians have illustrated that during this period, the system of slavery was not so much abandoned as it was reformed to appear just and fair.
Convict labor programs emerged as a cheap form of labor and as a way to keep blacks subservient. By instituting a whole host of laws that criminalized African American self-support and mobility, such as vagrancy laws, Southern states effectively provided a means to arrest any African American essentially at will. This system of crime and punishment filled the convict leasing labor programs with mostly blacks. For every 1 white person in prison in the South, there were 4.3 African Americans. To further entrench racial inequity, the system punished white and black individuals differently. While African Americans were sent to prison for minor crimes or because they couldn’t afford to pay bail, white people were generally given lighter sentences.
The idea of racialized criminality has carried over today. The historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad traced how social scientists seized on data from these racist Southern systems to conclude that African Americans were prone to criminality in general. “Violent crime rates in the nation’s biggest cities are generally understood as a reflection of the presence and behavior of black men, women, and children.” These beliefs about criminality have had surprisingly long reach. Leanne Serbulo and Karen Gibson noted that in the 1980s “Oregon and Washington had the most disproportionate rate of imprisonment for blacks in the nation. Blacks comprised just 4 percent of Multnomah County’s population but made up 22 percent of those arrested. At more than five times the proportion of the population, that was significantly higher than the national black arrest rate, which was three times the proportion of the population.”
From the 1980s to now, Portland has made changes to the way it polices its black community, however small they may be. These changes however, came only after a federal Department of Justice investigation found serious systemic problems with the way that Portland was handling specific residents. The city was found to be guilty of violating the civil rights of mentally ill residents, which is what prompted a change in the use-of-force protocols that the police use and instituted an oversight board.
Recently, across the country, there have been other similar actions to institute a form of oversight over the police. On September 4, 2014, less than one month after the shooting of Michael Brown, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division began an investigation of the Ferguson (Missouri) Police Department with the intention of releasing a report of their finding and making suggestions to the FPD about their conduct. The report, released on March 4, 2015, inspected the FPD by going on ride-alongs with on-duty officers, reviewing police reports and department emails, and interviewing city officials, members of law enforcement, community members, community organizations, and neighborhood associations, and concluded that there was a “pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department.” The DOJ found that the practices of the FPD “reflects and reinforces racial bias” and that “the harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans.” The report also highlighted the strong distrust of the police by Ferguson residents.
This report, the institution of oversight boards, and other techniques that keep the police as transparent to the public as possible are vital in efforts to amending our system of crime and punishment and will hopefully not be unique
 “Filmmaker’s interview transcript,” Imagining Home, DVD, directed by Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhem (Portland, Ore.: Hare in the Gate Productions, 2009)
 Mary E. Curtin, Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900 (Virginia: Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2000).
 Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
 Leanne C. Serbulo & Karen J. Gibson, “Black and Blue: Police-Community Relations in Portland’s Albina District, 1964-1985,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 114 (2013): 21.
 Department of Justice: Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, March 4, 2015, 2.
 Department of Justice, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, 4.