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RESPONSE TO TERROR | TREATMENT OF FOREIGNERS

Now Portland Comes In for Questioning

Probe: Oregon city and its police chief catch flak for refusing to interview foreigners on a U.S. list.

November 30, 2001|LYNN MARSHALL and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PORTLAND, Ore. — Even after a 32-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department and two years here, Police Chief Mark Kroeker says he has never experienced the pummeling he is taking these days.

Law enforcement officers in the rest of the nation are questioning foreigners about their possible knowledge of terrorist activities. But Kroeker, worried about civil rights violations, has said his officers will not join in this task. His is the only police agency in the country to refuse to cooperate for such reasons, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department.

Because of that decision, based on advice from Portland's city attorney, Kroeker is winning plaudits from civil libertarians. But he is catching flak from all over the country.

By Thursday, City Hall computers contained more than 1,000 e-mails. Half came from outside Oregon and were, one staffer said, universally critical of the city's position. From within Oregon, 60% of the electronic mail chastises the city for refusing to aid the investigation.

"I am appalled and embarrassed to be an Oregonian," wrote one local man. "You . . . have completely lost perspective and what appears to be any remnant of common sense."

And another: "We are disgusted and saddened. . . . We consider the city of Portland and the state of Oregon to be a haven for terrorists. We will discontinue traveling there as a company."

The director of the Citizens Crime Commission said he worries that the city attorney's ruling besmirches the city.

"Now it's a national story: Portland isn't cooperating," said Ray Mathis. "It makes the city look bad."

Criticism also is coming from within the ranks of the Police Bureau. "We're embarrassed by the city's decision," said Leo Painton, an officer with the Portland Police Assn. "We're in a state of war, and we want to go out and do our part, to help solve the 4,000 murders they're investigating."

Chief Kroeker is reeling from the broadsides.

"I'm surprised by the reaction . . . and, to some extent, I feel I've been vilified," he said Thursday. "I've never experienced anything like this.

"I must say, it has been discouraging to hear the level of uninformed criticism and the lack of knowledge of all the work that we have done and are continuing to do to investigate terrorism," he said.

The uproar stems from a request earlier this month by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft that law enforcement agencies help an overwhelmed FBI to interview about 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent who have entered the country in the last two years. The men can decline to be interviewed.

The Justice Department identified 23 residents for questioning in Portland, a city of 503,000. The Oregon state attorney general and the local district attorney said they had no problem with Ashcroft's request.

Corvallis, south of Portland, also is not going to interview 30 Middle Eastern men identified by the Justice Department. Police Chief Pam Roskowski said she had no legal objections to the questioning, but that her college town of 50,000 would be better served if police focused on active criminal investigations.

Portland City Atty. Jeffrey Rogers had issued an opinion that, based on his reading of Oregon law, some of the questions were illegally intrusive if asked of people who were not criminal suspects.

Some questions deal with the subject's sources of income, education and foreign travel; others focus more specifically on the person's knowledge of terrorism and weapons.

Kroeker said he has no objection to questioning foreign men, with their consent, "as a fact-gathering mechanism, a search for clues. This is a perfectly legitimate investigative technique."

But because a few of the questions "abut the law," Kroeker said his officers won't ask any of them. The FBI said other agencies will interview the Portland men.

Portland Mayor Vera Katz stands firmly behind the city attorney and police chief. "I support the president," she said Thursday, "but for the citizens of this city to say that this [refusal] is a treasonable act--that it's OK to break the law--raises tremendous concerns."

The city's decision is "a courageous call--and the right call," said David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. "It's good to know there is a police agency in Oregon that is serious about not only investigating terrorist activity, but also is serious about protecting the rights of innocent people who may be swept up in this very broad investigation."

Reaction on the street was decidedly mixed Thursday.

"My father is from Saudi Arabia and all my family is living in New York," said hairdresser Karina El Hindi, 27. "I want these [terrorists] caught, but I don't think a sweep of people who look like me or my dad will have any effect."

Portland's refusal to participate, she added, "says that all people are welcomed and treated fairly here."

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