Despite promising a deeper look of officers' use of force against "transients" and people with mental illness, prompted by an apparent spike in both categories in quarterly force reports last year, the Portland Police Bureau seems to be changing its mind.
Without releasing any findings from its promised review—meant to answer whether the rise was seasonal or tied to last summer's increased emphasis on camping and sidewalk violations—the bureau no longer lists a separate category for "transients" in its public force reports. The bureau's latest report, covering force incidents from January through March, now breaks out only mental health encounters. And a long summary of the data at the bottom of the report is silent about the change.
That data was included in a bureau report covering the final three months of 2013, and in three other reports filed that year. The bureau is filing the public reports as part of a proposed settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice over accusations Portland officers are too quick to escalate minor police contacts and also have engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force against people with mental illness.
Here's the final 2013 report:
I've asked two police spokesmen to comment on the omission and on what the promised review ever found, if anything. I'll update when I hear back.
The force report charting the late summer and early fall of 2013 specifically raised concerns about force against the homeless and people with mental illness—and said investigators would look at data from 2012 up through spring of 2014. Some 112 uses of force were against those two categories were reported that quarter, up from 93 three months before and 76 six months before. The number dropped back down to 93 at the end of 2013.
The most recent report does have a few other points worth mentioning. Overall force continues to drop—one reason the increase against the homeless and the mentally ill stood out.
But this time, the bureau focuses particular attention on Tasers, noting a 57 percent drop in Taser use overall when the first three months of 2014 are compared against the same span in 2013. More interestingly? No one, at least officially, received more than one Taser cycle in the first three months of this year, down from seven in early 2013. That may reflect the impact of new force policies, limiting Taser cycles and Taser use, that took effect late last year.
The new report also spends some time on another potentially sticky subject: all the times officers use force without actually arresting someone. That number went up significantly in this report, and the summary attached to it says officers want to do a better job tracking what happens in those cases, whether that be a juvenile hold, civil commitment, or trip to detox.
Update 5:15 PM: The bureau's lead spokesman, Sergeant Pete Simpson, got back to me after talking to the bureau employees who compile and analyze crime and force data.
Why scrap the "transient" category? Simpson says analysts decided it wasn't specific enough—in that bureau officials especially want to track force used against unsheltered, chronically homeless Portlanders, and not people who refuse to list an address or are too out of it to provide an address or who are sheltered but staying with friends, without an address of their own.
The idea, he says, is to maybe add all of those categories to future reports—which would follow other refinements made over the months. It wasn't clear if that would happen in time for the next quarterly report, which comes out this summer. Simpson also says the bureau's struggling with a slow-going transition to a new record-keeping and report-writing system. Officials are hoping that system will more easily let officers record the kind of granular data that avoids vagueness while promoting meaningful conclusions.
"We're learning as we do each of these," Simpson says. "We want to make sure we're collecting data in such a way that we present it the right way so we can have an honest conversation."
He did allow that, maybe, next time, the bureau would use the report's summary to explain such a noticeable change. That issue, this time, was complicated by a new inspector assembling his first report as well as the looming records changes.
"If we see something, and take something out, and there's a change," he says, "let's just explain."