Veteran federal prosecutor Kelly Zusman has heard the demands of many demonstrators to defund or abolish police.
She wondered instead what she could do to build better police forces, finding ways to have them mirror the communities they serve.
That led to a new scholarship created to encourage students of color to pursue criminal justice as a major at Portland Community College.
“Watching all of the protests and listening to a lot of people talk about what they want to get rid of,” she said, “I thought there has to be some positive stuff we could do.”
And when the college asked if Zusman wanted to name it after someone, she said she found the right person: Carmen Sylvester, the first Black woman hired by Portland police. It was 1973.
“Carmen became the inspiration,” Zusman said. “Her courage to become a Portland Police Bureau officer when so few women or African Americans were doing so and the work that she did on patrol and with the schools underscored how important it is for law enforcement to be part of our own community.‘’
Sylvester, who is retired as an officer but still works full-time as court security, said policing needs good people “with real life experiences.” They should want to help others, be civil servants, she said.
They should also be aware of the state’s history, she said. The founders and framers of the Oregon Constitution excluded Black people and sought a white utopia.
“The anger and protests are not just about recent events, but instead reflect 400 years of history and a lot of unresolved injustices,” Sylvester said.
So far, Zusman and others have raised a little over $42,000 for the endowed Carmen M. Sylvester PCC Criminal Justice Scholarship. The first one will be awarded to a student of color in the 2021-2022 school year.
Zusman and her family contributed $5,000 toward the scholarship.
A committee overseen by U.S. Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta, which administers admission fees that attorneys pay to practice in federal court in the District of Oregon, kicked in $25,000, the amount required for an endowed scholarship.
The goal is to raise up to $100,000 to help support two or three scholarships a year. Each scholarship is intended to cover a year’s tuition.
Sylvester, now 75, said she hopes the scholarship opens choices for young people who might not have otherwise considered a career in law enforcement.
“If I can be influential or be a source of encouragement for diversity within the bureau or any criminal justice career, I’m glad to lend my name to that,” she said.
When she joined the Police Bureau, she was a newly divorced 28-year-old mother of four daughters.
“When I was hired, I had no clue what police work was about, none whatsoever,” she said. “My thought was, ‘This was an opportunity. I will seize the moment.’”
A friend had suggested she apply to the Police Bureau. Women officers, until 1973, had been restricted from working the streets; only a handful of Black people carried a city police badge.
Sylvester wasn’t deterred. She was looking for a better-paying job.
“They were offering $4.50 an hour,” she recalled. “I was making $2.75 an hour checking baggage at the airport. That was quite attractive.”
So she filled out an application in 1973 and became what was then called a “potential police candidate trainee.” As a trainee, she began in the identification unit, developing crime scene photos. Six months later, she completed the police academy and was sworn in as an officer in May 1974.
She said she reaped the benefits of a group of women who sued to reclassify the job of Portland “patrolman” to “patrol officer.” That allowed women officers to work patrol. She was one of the first five women to work on the Police Bureau’s patrol detail.
Despite that, in her early years, she faced intense skepticism from fellow officers, she said. Some were reluctant to ride shoulder-to-shoulder in the same patrol car with her because she was a woman. Others, she said, complained that they wouldn’t be able to use racist slurs about Black offenders if she was working beside them.
“That was the welcoming I received,” Sylvester said. “I developed a defensive wall. If someone gave me heat, I gave them twice as much back, and they left me alone.”
She worked patrol throughout the city as her parents cared for her young children during the week.
For about five years, Sylvester gave safety presentations to Portland grade school students. When she introduced herself, she’d say, “I’m a mother who happens to work as a police officer” and ask that they call her either “Ms. Sylvester” or “Officer Friendly.”
“They needed to know I wasn’t born with this badge on this chest and my mother didn’t name me ‘Officer,” Sylvester told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an earlier interview. “I always felt it was important to maintain who you are as a citizen.”
She said she remembered being racially profiled at a local store by a clerk who thought she might shoplift because she was Black and being redlined for a home improvement loan.
When she was first hired as a Portland officer under the Bureau’s Law Enforcement Action Partnership program, she was required to attend classes at Portland Community College to get an associate’s degree within five years.
Sylvester ended up taking one year of sabbatical to finish up the degree at the Cascade campus, she said.
Since her retirement in 1999 from the Police Bureau, she’s provided security for the federal courthouse downtown, the Pioneer Courthouse and now works full time at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
In January 2018, Sylvester swore in Danielle Outlaw, the first Black woman to serve as Portland’s police chief.
One of Sylvester’s daughters, Erika Preuitt, is director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, overseeing county parole and probation services.
The scholarship will be available to all Portland Community College students who major in criminal justice and have completed the department’s Cultural Diversity in Criminal Justice course.
Eligibility will depend on financial need, with preference for students who have completed at least 24 credits at the community college.
According to Jim Parks, a retired Portland police officer who chairs the criminal justice department at Portland Community College, 55% of the students in the program in the 2018-19 school year were white and the rest were people of color. More than half of the students were women.
Parks remembering working with Sylvester when they both were assigned to Central Precinct.
“I think this is a great opportunity to help recruit more students of color,’’ he said. “Our focus is getting students into the job market because the jobs are there right now.”
When Zusman first came up with the idea, she connected with John Deits, a former federal drug prosecutor, who has been teaching criminal justice courses in Portland for nearly seven years after retiring from Oregon’s U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Many minority students attend the community college while working full- or part-time jobs, Deits said. The coronavirus pandemic, though, has made it more difficult for the students as their jobs have dried up, he said.
“Something like this will be enormously helpful for this demographic,” Deits said.
The college will accept applications for the scholarship from Dec. 1 through March 1, said Crystal Froembling, the major gift officer for the Portland Community College Foundation. Most of the money raised was donated this summer.
“This really did get off the ground quickly,” Froembling said.
Additional gifts to the Carmen M. Sylvester Criminal Justice Scholarship can be made here.
— Maxine Bernstein
Email at [email protected]; 503-221-8212
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