Echoes of a Crackdown? 

More Cops Using Force on Homeless, Mentally Ill

THE LATEST REPORT from the Portland Police Bureau showing how often our officers use force—and against whom—showcases a dispiriting trend in light of a recently revived peace deal between the city and its largest police union over federal reforms.

So far, for much of 2013, Portland cops have seen a steady and significant increase in the number of cases where they've used force against someone identified as a "transient," mentally ill, or both.

The bureau's most recent "use-of-force report," covering the three months that ended September 30, lists 112 cases between both categories. That's up from 93 during the three months before—and just 76 cases between January 1 and March 31.

That obvious increase seemingly coincides with a citywide crackdown on homeless campers. It also comes amid a years-long decrease in overall force incidents.

And while bureau officials are quick to point to summer weather—which historically draws in young homeless travelers—they've also promised a deeper look in case there's something more alarming or structural in play.

A footnote in the report says cops will look back at the summer of 2012 and also keep a closer watch on force numbers from this fall and next winter and spring.

"We have very strong theoretical grounds to believe that seasonal variation may be impacting [the numbers]," says Sergeant Greg Stewart, a backup bureau spokesman and a member of the bureau's number-crunching team.

The force reports, which started this year, are part of the city's efforts to get right with the US Department of Justice over accusations that Portland cops use excessive force against, and aggressively Taser, people with mental illness.

Before it agreed to produce the reports, the bureau wasn't able to track or respond to statistical shifts so quickly.

The bureau has also started training on revised policies that require cops to consider someone's mental health before Tasering or using force against them. Those revisions were on hold while the city worked to win support from the Portland Police Association.

Taking into consideration those changes, the latest report shows one other potential trouble spot: an increase, over the past three months, of instances when an officer had to Taser someone more than twice. That happened eight times between July 1 and September 30, up from once during the three preceding months.

New policies discourage repeat Taserings but still allow them—provided officers give warnings and wait a few seconds before administering another 50,000-volt shock.

But already, the bureau can count one example in its next report. On Monday, November 18, the bureau released an eyewitness' video from the Friday before showing several cops repeatedly Tasering a mentally man in the Pearl District Whole Foods. The man had reportedly grabbed some knives.

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