News

The Oregonian: Meet Portland State's new police chief: 'We are guardians, not suppressors'
Author: Andrew Sheen, The Oregonian
Posted: December 22, 2017

Read the original story on The Oregonian.

Donnell Tanksley had just wanted to go horseback riding outside of his hometown of St. Louis.

Instead, the U.S. serviceman stood on the side of a Missouri highway that weekend day three decades ago with six friends and family members, detained by five squad cars of police officers.

"Why can't you n------ go horseback riding in St. Louis?" Tanksley recalled one officer asking the group of young black men. The cop said they'd been pulled over for not using a turn signal when they exited the highway an hour earlier. The group had stopped for a bite at a fast food place, Tanksley said, suggesting the officers had been waiting for them.

The police used one man's failure to buy a fishing license as grounds to make an arrest, he said – even though they weren't planning to fish. And the horseback adventure was over before it began.

Tanksley said it was a defining moment for him and became the motivation to pursue a law enforcement career. Even now, at 49 and the new police chief at Portland State University, he carries the lessons of that day.

"There has to be a better way to do this particular craft," Tanksley said in an interview. "There has to be a better way to treat people. There has to be a better way to police."

Tanksley joined Portland State last month after spending three years as assistant chief at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Prior to that, he'd spent 21 years with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, where he'd risen to the rank of lieutenant, and a combined 22 years in the U.S. Navy and its reserve forces before transitioning to the U.S. Air National Guard in Missouri.

PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi said Tanksley brings "impressive credentials" to the South Park Blocks. "He understands the challenges and opportunities at Portland State as a large urban university, and as chief he is committed to engaging our students, faculty and staff and the greater Portland community," Shoureshi said in a statement.

Tanksley arrives at Portland State a little more than a year after a vocal contingent of students staged several protests in response to a 2014 decision to arm campus officers. The issue partly motivated a March 2016 protest that shut down a trustees meeting, as well as a student walkout later that spring.

Tanksley said having a gun is just one of the tools officers have at their disposal. Communication is another.

"That trust isn't going to be built overnight, but it's a continued relationship and you have to be willing to listen and be transparent," he said. "And if you're wrong, you have to say you're wrong."

At the time of the horseback riding trip in the late '80s, Tanksley had been living in the same apartment complex in Ferguson, Missouri, that would one day be home to Michael Brown. 

The black teenager was unarmed when he was fatally shot by a white police officer in August 2014. A grand jury declined to indict the officer, sparking violent protests in the St. Louis suburb and large demonstrations across the country, including Portland. Brown's death drew national scrutiny to police interactions with people of color, and ushered in the Black Lives Matter movement

The topic is a familiar one among Tanksley's family and friends. Last year, he said, his then 23-year-old daughter told him she was more worried about being stopped by a police officer than robbed or assaulted on the street in St. Louis.

Tanksley said such conversations are happening throughout the country and has led to some tough times for officers of color. "You're too blue for certain communities, right?" he said of the police uniform and what it symbolizes, "and not black enough for those affected communities, because of your profession and uniform."

Portland State's winter term begins Jan. 8, and Tanksley said he wants his 14 sworn officers to be visible throughout the downtown Portland campus to ensure they are not merely noticed when something is amiss.

"We are guardians, not suppressors," Tanksley said.

He said he is mindful that each and every interaction an officer has with the public might affect their lives forever, just as it did for him.