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The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon, 14 November 2000
Activists focus on paddling remarks
Bonnie Tinker, who heads the group, questions Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker's truthfulness and ability to serve
By Maxine Bernstein and Scott Learn of The Oregonian staff
A coalition of community activists, which is planning a public forum for next week to air its concerns about Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker, has turned its focus to his taped remarks about disciplining Christian camp children with a boat oar.
The group, including Portland Police Bureau critics who have been pushing for an independent civilian review board, points to the discrepancy between Kroeker's statements in recent weeks, in which he denies ever having wielded the boat oar himself, and his taped remarks from a decade ago in which he takes credit for administering such punishment.
Bonnie Tinker, executive director of Love Makes A Family and founding chairwoman of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is heading the group. She said she questions Kroeker's truthfulness and ability to serve as chief.
"It's wide open to the interpretation that he deliberately and strategically lied about this to the press and to the mayor because . . . he wanted to keep his job," Tinker said. "I plan to keep this up until he says what he did and accepts the consequences."
In a taped sermon, "Family Discipline," Kroeker talks about the decade he spent as "dean of boys" to hundreds of high-school-aged children at Hume Lake Christian Camps in California.
When a camper misbehaved, Kroeker describes how he and others applied a 3-foot-long boat oar to the "soft part of the camper's buttocks" after calling parents to obtain permission. He said none of the children ever was injured. And, he said, he hugged the children afterwards.
On the tape, Kroeker recounts: "Well, one mother said, 'Who's gonna apply the swat?' I said, 'Me.' And she said, 'I have one question. Do you have children?' and I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'Swat away.' And I said, 'All right.' . . . When we applied that boat oar, we applied it with due strength."
Further in his taped speech, Kroeker said grown campers would return to him years later and thank him: "They'd say, 'You know that time you swatted me? You're the guy that swatted me!' Big grin on their face. 'You know that time on Hume Lake? That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.' "
Since a Portland alternative newspaper, The Portland Alliance, publicized the tapes more than two weeks ago, Kroeker has repeatedly denied having used the oar himself.
Kroeker, who is at a police chief conference in California, said again in a phone interview Sunday: "No, I never paddled anybody at camp."
He continued, "If there's any confusion, there may have been an inartful use of the pronouns 'me' and 'we' in that tape. The 'we' was the camp administrators. I do remember it was camp administrators who actually did the paddling. I never did. That's the truth.
"If there was an error in the way it was communicated, then it was an error," Kroeker said. "It was not intentional."
The chief said the activity at the camp occurred in the '70s, and the current camp director said such discipline hasn't occurred in 20 years. "The concept of paddling was at that time pretty normal," camp Executive Director Jeff Lilley said. "It wasn't extreme."
Lilley said he did not know whether Kroeker administered the spankings. As dean of boys, Kroeker would have been in charge of discipline at the time, he said.
"But any time something like that happens there's never only one person in the room," Lilley said. "It may not have been him swinging at all."
Kroeker defended himself as a child advocate. He founded the World Children's Transplant Fund, which helps doctors in underdeveloped countries do pediatric organ transplants. "The law is clear regarding parents inflicting injury on their children. In terms of following the law, that's what I do and will continue to do," he said.
Under current Oregon law, it's a crime to physically injure someone or inflict more than fleeting physical pain, prosecutors said. But parents and those caring for children may use "reasonable physical force" if necessary to maintain discipline or promote the welfare of a child.
The matter has a striking resemblance to a controversy in Los Angeles when decades-old religious tapes recorded by Robert Vernon surfaced in 1991 when he was Los Angeles assistant chief. Similar to Kroeker's tapes, Vernon condemned homosexuality, declared men as "the leader" of women and talked about spanking children with a boat oar.
Vernon, who is on Hume Lake's board of directors, was the subject of an internal police investigation because of allegations that Vernon had improperly injected his Christian views on the job. Vernon was cleared of any wrongdoing, but his beliefs continued to fuel controversy until he retired. Kroeker was Vernon's chief of staff and belonged to the same church Vernon did. In a July address to Portland's Greater Portland Bible Church, Kroeker called Vernon a "great brother in the Lord."
Kroeker has refused to discuss his Christian fundamentalist beliefs, yet he has said as a public official that he respects and values women and gays.
Mayor Vera Katz said last week that she continues to support the chief and has found no evidence that he has shown intolerance on the job.
On the discrepancy between Kroeker's recent comments and his taped remarks, Katz's chief-of-staff, Sam Adams, said: "We are not in the position to know the context for everything he said on those tapes. That's something you need to talk to him about."
Tinker's group, dissatisfied with the mayor's and Kroeker's responses, said the group would invite Kroeker to attend a forum next Tuesday night. Kroeker said he was committed to holding a forum but had not discussed any specifics with the group.
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