PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon’s largest city was at the center of the movement to defund the police amid outrage that swept the nation after the murder of George Floyd, but more than a year later the sustained protests in Portland have largely faded away.
Now, the city is seeking a difficult path forward amid rising homicide rates and homelessness that's sparked a backlash in some circles against the anti-police activism that has defined Portland’s political landscape for the past two years.
Against this backdrop, a Black city councilman elected in the throes of the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged as a key voice nudging Portland to a more centrist — and controversial — position on police funding.
Mingus Mapps, a former political science professor and single dad who defeated a progressive diehard for his council seat, recently voted with the City Council to pump more than $5 million back into the Police Bureau to bolster recruitment of officers, purchase body cameras and rehire recent retirees.
Before he took office, Mapps compared protesters to a "white mob" for vandalizing the home of a fellow councilman who voted against $18 million in police cuts. More recently, he called those who took part in a violent demonstration after the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse “villains in the story of Portland's recovery.”
"If you’re breaking windows downtown in order to somehow improve the lives of Black people, I can tell you as a Black person that doesn’t improve my life one bit,” Mapps said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“You know, right now, my 12-year-old does not like to go downtown because he perceives it as unsafe," he said. "As a parent and a political leader, as long as our kids feel unsafe, my work is undone.”
Mapps' rise from obscurity to a well-known player in one of the whitest major American cities fits into a centrist shift taking place in other liberal metropolises that saw movements to defund police in a surge of activism 18 months ago.
In New York City and Seattle, those more moderate voices are also Black men — Eric Adams and Bruce Harrell — who won mayoral races appealing to voters by talking about reforming the police rather than abolishing them altogether, said Mark Alan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
Moderate Black politicians like Adams, Harrell and Mapps are finding success in liberal enclaves now because they “are not saying a lot of the things that white progressives do that alienate the rest of the country,” Smith said, adding that when they advocate for more centrist policies ”that message coming from people of color is more likely to be accepted."
Shortly after his election, Mapps voted against expanding a pilot program called Portland Street Response that dispatches unarmed mental health specialists, community health workers and paramedics to non-violent calls related to drug use and mental illness.
Recently, however, he voted to use some of the city's $62 million in unanticipated tax revenue for that program while stepping up police recruitment. He has aligned himself with Mayor Ted Wheeler, who wants to hire 300 new officers over three years.
That approach, Mapps said, reflects his commitment to both “building the police department and reforming the police department.”
The city urgently needs to boost the ranks of its officers amid record homicides and to fix a dysfunctional 911 system that has one of the worst response rates in the country, Mapps said, while at the same time investing in public safety alternatives like Portland Street Response.
He notes that the city’s explosion in gun violence has claimed the lives of Black males in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers.
Mapps’ critics fault him for a narrative they say excuses law enforcement in a city with a long history of police misconduct. They also slammed him for accepting $15,000 in campaign contributions from the police union during his campaign — a decision he has defended.
Portland saw more than 100 days of continuous protest in the summer and fall of 2020 and thousands of residents marched nightly during two particularly intense weeks as they faced off against federal agents sent by President Donald Trump to quell unrest. A two-block area of downtown felt like a war zone after dark, with the agents in full body armor firing tear gas, flash-bang grenades and pepper spray into crowds that responded with fireworks and rocks.
During the protest peak, Portland police reported more than 6,000 uses of force and subsequently fell out of compliance with a 2014 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice for excessive use of force. Federal regulators rebuked the bureau for its “abnormally high” reliance on violent tactics.
Councilwoman Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to the City Council and a champion of Portland Street Response, said the police budget is “bloated” and the city is far from resolving its Justice Department oversight.
“I am a believer in holding ineffective and harmful practices accountable," she said before the recent fall budget vote. “Attempting to mitigate crime through adding police is among the most expensive, least effective, and least urgent responses we can have as a Council.”
Bobbin Singh, founder and executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said attempting to find a middle ground on policing as Mapps is doing ignores the racism that’s baked into the justice system and the Police Bureau.
“The question before us is not that complex. It’s binary. Either you support racial justice or you don’t,” Singh said. “You don’t find compromise with those structures; you dismantle those structures.”
Mapps, however, said reducing the debate to either being pro-police or pro-defunding is a “set of false choices."
“I know that the people of color that I talked to ... want the same thing their white neighbors want, which is just a public safety system that works and respects them and treats them fairly, regardless of the color of their skin,” Mapps said.
"That is the hope and expectation that I haven’t given up on, and if there’s any town in America that can get this right, I think we can.”
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus