Saving Us from Ourselves 

We Asked, the Feds Spoke: Portland Cops Use Excessive Force Against the Mentally Ill

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IN THE END, there was nothing else to do.

For years, the tally of mentally ill Portlanders beaten, gratuitously Tasered, or shot dead by police officers has only grown. Reports filled with recommendations on how to stem that tide and rebuild community trust have piled up to no avail.

Police union leadership balked at taking any responsibility, even marching en masse in defense of Chris Humphreys, the officer who shot a 12-year-old girl with a beanbag gun. And police brass only nibbled at change, rightly blaming the incidents on the collapse of funding for mental health care but remaining unwilling—even in recent years—to commit to common-sense reforms like specialized crisis-incident training and tightened Taser policies.

Finally, last Thursday, September 13, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) told everyone to knock it off. After a nearly 15-month investigation, the feds ruled that Portland cops routinely use excessive force against the mentally ill—a pattern that's unconstitutional and must change.

That finding came with many of the same reforms that community groups and advocates have long demanded.

The difference, this time? A federal court can make sure the police bureau, and its union leaders, are listening.

"There have been lots of recommendations, and there has been a lot of pushback—for years," says Mayor Sam Adams, who joined Commissioner Dan Saltzman in formally asking the feds to step in more than two years ago—bowing to community pressure and realizing that real change in Portland would never come from within. "The reason I asked for this is because at the end of the process, what [the DOJ] decides becomes what [Portland police leaders] have to do," Adams said.

Adams was joined at Thursday's announcement by his handpicked police chief, Mike Reese, who personally disagrees with the findings but has pledged "no daylight" between what reforms his bureau is being ordered to do and what he will undertake. The Mercury talked to local advocates and national experts to look not only at the problems and fixes found by the feds, but also the political and financial realities that could still get in their way.

THE PROBLEMS

The police lack training. Right now, the police bureau gives every cop only 40 hours of mental health training, while they're still in the police academy. That was supposed to be a response to the 2006 beating death of James Chasse Jr., a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. But this assumes officers are all created equal when it comes to dealing with people in crisis. They're not.

For example, investigators talked with one officer who said his job is to "put people in jail, not provide social services." The report notes: "This officer would not be the appropriate officer to conduct a welfare check on a person with mental illness."

The feds also criticized the current training for not including any interactions with real-life Portlanders in recovery, and for failing to open up the training to advocates. Because of this lack of contact, say investigators, police are more afraid of people with mental illnesses than police in other cities. They're also derogatory, routinely referring to people as "mentals."

Officers can get away with using excessive force. Investigators found shoddy oversight of use-of-force incidents, including officers not taking reports from witnesses (including the person against whom the force was used), not taking pictures of injuries, supervising officers approving their own use of force, and not resolving differences between officers' and witnesses' stories.

Out of a review of hundreds of use-of-force cases, investigators found that—surprise!—the force was rarely deemed out of line, even when it was clearly excessive. For example, trainers were using Officer Chris Humphreys' controversial 2009 beanbag shooting of a 12-year-old girl as a good case of using force.

The police accountability system is "self-defeating." The feds really rip into the police bureau's insanely complex process for reviewing complaints about use of force, calling the multi-step process "byzantine" and making fun of the spider web of a flowchart that's supposed to explain the system. Complaints against officers go through so many layers of bureaucracy that it undercuts the efficiency and accountability of the force overall. The Independent Police Review Division dismisses two-thirds of all complaints (66 percent) without even a cursory internal affairs investigation.

And then, when cases are sent to internal affairs, police investigators classify more than half as mere "service improvement opportunities" that still aren't fully reviewed.

"That's shocking, and really a matter for concern," says Barbara Attard, who formerly served as San Jose's independent police auditor. "Officers can be guilty of really serious misconduct. And if you're not following up and not holding those officers accountable or working to change their behavior, you're not going to a change a problem situation." 

THE SOLUTIONS

Inject the system with expertise. The feds want the police to create a specially trained volunteer team to deal with people in acute crisis—kind of like a SWAT team for mental crises. Portland used to have a unit like that, but it was considered a punishment for officers, not a prize, like the city's tough-guy tactical team.

This would come on top of the baseline crisis training in place, but that also would change so officers better "recognize that persons with mental illness need to be dealt with differently, and may react very differently to police assistance, than an average citizen."

Further, the bureau has been told to grow its Project Respond experiment—which currently pairs a cop with a clinician, but only downtown during the day shift—into a 24-hour, citywide operation. Underlying everything is the demand for a full-time triage center where cops can drop off people in crisis. The county has just opened a treatment facility of its own, but several cops "ironically—and tragically" told investigators they didn't even know the place's phone number.

• Prize de-escalation over brute force. Report after report in recent years has urged the cops to stop using beanbag pellets and Tasers—50,000-volt stun guns that, the feds note, can kill someone—on people who merely display the "intent" to resist an officer ["Juicing the Debate," News, March 15], whatever that means. The feds have joined those reports, and they've also told our cops to stop cycling their Tasers over and over when they shock someone, without making sure the first one or two cycles did the job. Both recommendations are in place at police agencies across the country—and both need to be made clear to officers. Cops also have been told to start logging "how and when" they contact citizens, so that "mere conversations" don't escalate into pretext stops and, eventually, force cases.

• Simplify the complaint process! The feds are clear on this: "Complaints of excessive force should always be subject to investigation and a finding." That means no more early dismissals. And by shrinking a timeline for investigations that can take years, the bureau would send a more immediate message to officers about unacceptable conduct.

Even now, the various layers are so riddled with loopholes they work as "escape valves" that "eviscerate" investigations. For example, deadly force cases are kept from the Citizen Review Committee, which is supposed to handle all misconduct appeals.

THE REALITY

Adams, in wholeheartedly accepting the feds' findings, is working to turn what should be a shameful moment for the city into another marketing opportunity. He wants to position Portland as a national laboratory for devising the best ways of managing cops' interactions with the mentally ill.

But soon he'll be passing off the job to another mayor, who may have different ideas on who should run the police bureau (as in, not Mike Reese). The police union, the Portland Police Association (PPA), has endorsed one of the two mayoral candidates, Jefferson Smith. And experts warn that, even with a federal court ordering deep reforms, coming up with the money to fully fund them remains a challenge.

"It is possible," says Sam Walker of the University of Nebraska, who specializes in federal "pattern and practice" investigations. "But it's not going to be easy and it's not going to be cheap."

The cost may add up to millions Portland doesn't have. Big issues include how to pay for a new triage center—and how much the city will have to spend buying off the PPA during next year's contract talks. Almost immediately after the press conference, the PPA adopted a "pay me" stance.

Adams says he hopes to ride federal and state health care reform and that he's insisted on joining meetings in Salem on the issue. He also hopes voters wake up and understand just how "cash-starved" our mental health system is. But he's still working on how to pay for what emerges.

"I don't have an answer I'm willing to talk about yet," he says.

Community leaders also didn't get everything they wanted, including constitutional findings on deadly force and racial bias.

Walker, the DOJ expert, says that may not matter: "The problem may be a specific category of police encounter. But it's a jolt to a police department and there will be a lot of spillover onto other areas of policing."

All the same, Jo Ann Hardesty, who sits on the steering committee of one of the groups that first pleaded for a federal probe, the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform (AMA), had one word to describe how she felt about the report: "giddy."

"We now have the federal courts behind us," she said. "They still want to tinker around the edges. But the time for tinkering is over. What this shows is that police commissioners over the years have abdicated their responsibility to the police union. The DOJ has given us the chance to take ownership back."

A PDF of the Department of Justice's summary of its investigation is available here.

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