Portland, Ore., is a town whose greatest point of pride is perhaps what it is not, and that is Los Angeles. No sprawl, thanks to strict growth management. No smog. A successful light-rail system.
And unlike the city plagued by race riots and gang violence, Portland talks of tolerance as a greater truth. So it was with some trepidation nearly a year ago that the city greeted its new police chief, Mark Kroeker, a 32-year LAPD veteran and longtime Los Angeles deputy chief. Granted, Kroeker did help heal Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney G. King case. But really, the LAPD in a city where police are expected to be polite?
The unease started when police met a series of May Day street demonstrations--the kind of marches Portland activists convene about as often as the sun shines in winter here, and with as much malice--with riot gear, batons and beanbag rounds. During nine hours of confrontations, 19 protesters were arrested and at least 20 were injured.
Kroeker also raised eyebrows with his new grooming code for male officers on the 1,300-member force: no ponytails, no hair below the collar, no beards, no earrings. Police, he said, should look like they are “there to do business.”
Then last month came word of a series of tapes Kroeker recorded a decade ago for the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers. In the tapes, available for sale on the Internet, Kroeker called homosexuality “a perversion” and said AIDS would claim millions of victims because society had decided that “certain kinds of morality [were] not the affair of the state.”
He called for wives to be “submissive” and supported corporal punishment for children.
It must be understood that Portland views itself as an island of tolerance in a doubtful state. Several ballot measures over the years have attempted to attack homosexual lifestyles, always to be beaten back by the liberal Portland vote.
Thus the Kroeker controversy.
Mayor Vera Katz came home from vacation last month to a loud chorus demanding Kroeker’s head--and a somewhat quieter one reminding Katz of the police chief’s long record of tolerance and community building. (Kroeker had created nationally recognized community policing networks in the San Fernando Valley and South-Central Los Angeles. He was poised to be named the LAPD chief before finishing a close second to Bernard C. Parks in 1997.)
Kroeker moved quickly to repair the damage. Shortly after the Portland Alliance newspaper broke the story, Kroeker issued a statement to his officers, referring to the tapes as “some remarks I made years ago in a religious context.” He vowed there would be no intolerance or bias in the workplace--or in the streets--on his watch.
“I want you to know that I have no judgment in my heart for others, I do not devalue any other human being for his or her beliefs or sexual orientation,” the chief said.
Christian conservatives have come to Kroeker’s defense, including Lon Mabon of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, which sponsored one ill-fated anti-gay ballot measure. “Chief Kroeker is a man of faith,” Mabon said, “but the homosexual activists are noted for their degree of intolerance of anybody who expresses a negative moral opinion about their lifestyle.”
Several City Council members, on the other hand, were critical of the chief.
Katz, whose responsibility it is to hire or fire a police chief, has stood behind Kroeker.
“I want to apologize for the concern, pain and fear caused by the taped comments made years ago by Chief Kroeker . . . which in no way reflect my own personal beliefs,” the mayor said this month.
Katz said she was confident Kroeker had exhibited no bias. “He is leading the bureau in a fair, respectful and inclusive manner. The law provides that all city employees have a right to their personal religious views. . . . Many of the arguments raised asking me to dismiss Mark Kroeker because he is ‘out of step with Portland’ could be used in other Oregon communities to fire more liberal public officials who are out of step with their community’s conservative majority. My 30-year fight for tolerance goes both ways.”
Still, it was clear Katz was giving Kroeker an ultimatum: Fix it with the community, build new lines of trust, or find a new job.
Kroeker has met with groups citywide, stressing his commitment to inclusiveness and pointing out his long-standing work against AIDS in Los Angeles. On Sunday, Kroeker introduced his wife to six drag queens at a 70th birthday party for the owner of one of Portland’s best-known female impersonator cabarets.
“It was fun, actually,” he said in an interview Monday. “Lots of people came by to express their appreciation and support.” His message, he said, was that “we have work to do, and part of that work has to do with gathering a greater degree of trust in the community, the gay community specifically, so that they’ll report hate crimes when they occur, so they’ll join the police bureau as opportunities arise, so that they’ll know we provide equal protection to everyone.”
A good portion of the city’s gay and lesbian community has expressed a willingness to give Kroeker the benefit of the doubt.
“I personally feel like if the mayor is keeping him, that we as citizens need to find a way to work with him,” said Kristan Aspen of the Lesbian Community Project. “I’m willing to put out some energy . . . to communicate, to press for reforms and changes in the way we would like to see the police department be more accountable to the whole community.”
But, she added, Kroeker first has to understand the hurtful nature of his taped remarks. She says he needs to go past saying they were private religious views that had no bearing on his professional work. “He needs to say something like, ‘I’ve changed my views, and now I feel this way.’ ”