Today, the ACLU of Oregon sent a letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw to ask them to investigate complaints of Portland Police Bureau profiling and harassing homeless individuals in downtown Portland. If true, PPB’s harassment and suspicionless stops of homeless individuals are not only morally wrong, but are almost certainly violations of state and federal law.
In late April and early May of this year, the ACLU of Oregon received reports of PPB officers stopping and questioning people on the street, running warrant checks, and searching their tents and personal belongings without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime has occured. A news story documented police officers “running names” of every homeless person they came across. In early June, Police also conducted sweeps of homeless people to clear them out before Fleet Week.
Evidence of the criminalization of homelessness in data, too. In police statistics analyzed by The Oregonian and published yesterday, the paper found that houseless people accounted for more than half the arrests made by the Portland Police Bureau in 2017, despite representing less than three percent of the city’s population.
This type of policing is dehumanizing, trust-eroding, and make it harder for people to get off the street. It is especially disheartening to see the Portland police target people near social-service providers. By targeting areas surrounding social service providers, police officers are interfering with access to services necessary to the physical and mental wellbeing of unhoused community members.
Warrantless and suspicionless searches like these violate the U.S. and Oregon constitutions. There is no “homelessness exception” to constitutional rights.
Profiling people because they are perceived to be to be homeless also violates the PPB’s own policies and state law. Homelessness is not a crime. Stopping and searching people simply because they are unhoused isn’t just illegal, but it adds to the stigmatization of poverty, contributes to the cycle of homeless, and makes scares an already traumatized community away from important social services. Homeless people cannot go to the police for help if they fear being harassed or criminalized.
We cannot address this problem by making it illegal, or pushing the homeless out of our urban core.
The Portland Police Bureau should strive to treat all people and with dignity and respect, regardless of where they sleep at night. Preying on people because they are poor is disgraceful as a matter of principal and ineffective public policy. Treating unhoused people like criminals punishes are dehumanizes those who are already vulnerable and struggling, and fails to address the many causes of homelessness, such as Portland’s affordable housing crisis and lack of accessible mental health services.