INVESTIGATORS from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) interviewed key Portlanders last week about a question that's long needed asking: Is there a systematic problem with the use of force within the Portland police, especially when they deal with mentally ill people?
Good question—but several advocates of police reform say the major federal investigation may not be asking the right people.
The DOJ launched the investigation into Portland police's treatment of the mentally ill in June, in response to several high-profile deaths of mentally ill people during police interactions, including James Chasse in 2006 and Aaron Campbell last year ["A Question for the Feds", Hall Monitor, June 16].
Over recent weeks, the investigation sent out press releases soliciting interviews with locals who had relevant experiences with the cops. The investigators set up shop Wednesday, August 3, and Thursday, August 4, at various community spaces (including at the headquarters of African American group the Urban League of Portland and the homeless-focused Bud Clark Commons), interviewing both policymakers and regular citizens.
They also specifically requested interviews with important advocacy groups, like the Albina Ministerial Alliance and Portland Copwatch.
But the investigators missed at least one significant group—the Mental Health Association of Portland. The group is one of the city's most prominent educators on police and mental health issues, so members were surprised not to be specifically invited in for an interview.
"They never contacted us, though we've received lots of letters from various supporters saying you've got to talk to these people," says the Mental Health Association's Jason Renaud.
Since they weren't contacted for an interview, the Mental Health Association opted to send an email. The association penned a letter to the DOJ on July 24, noting that the group has documented 197 cases of Portland police violence since 1970 and that they would be happy to meet with the investigators, but not in the typical private interview.
"We represent persons with significant communications barriers; to meet privately would exclude the persons we represent," read the letter, saying they would need to record any interview that would occur.
But in the two weeks since sending the letter, Renaud says the group has not heard anything from the investigators. He's not optimistic that the probe will wind up changing anything in Portland.
"This is sort of a paper tiger—we're calling in the cavalry, but these guys can't do any more than issue a blue-ribbon report," says Renaud. "And we have enough stacks of those already."
The DOJ cannot comment on any details of the investigation, including the specifics regarding community outreach, how long the probe will take, or whether it will even issue a final recommendations.
Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman participated in an investigation interview last week and has mixed feelings about how effective the probe will actually be.
"You get the feeling that the DOJ isn't used to this kind of work," says Handelman. On the one hand, multiple people who participated in interviews report that investigators have been open minded, willing to listen to criticism, and very familiar with Portland's issues. On the other, the public interviews were inconveniently held during weekday work hours and weren't well publicized.
"It wasn't clear from the news release they wanted to talk to people with first-hand knowledge of police interactions," says Handelman. "Most of the people you want to talk to are six feet underground. You need to talk to the people who are left behind."