I'm finally ducking out for air and food—and wireless internet—some seven hours into a "fairness hearing" on the Portland Police Bureau's proposed settlement with the feds on accusations our cops engage "in a pattern or practice" of using excessive force against people in a mental health crisis.
I'd been talking to sources ahead of the hearing about one of the quieter components of the deal: an ostensible exhortation to work with CCOs (coordinated care organizations) to build one or more walk-in or drop-off treatment centers for people with mental illness. It turned out to be prescient.
Officials with the city and US Department of Justice and others acknowledged in court for the first time today that the call to build those centers is merely "aspirational." The feds have no power to compel the state or Multnomah County to pay for or manage those centers—and the language in the settlement was deliberately crafted to ensure the city wouldn't be responsible in their stead.
"This agreement has no influence on those services," said Chris Bouneff, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Oregon.
Bouneff was called as a friendly witness by the US Department of Justice. The state and county, he said, "are not at the table and there's nothing to compel them to be at the table to increase the type of services necessary."
“That element will be missing in this agreement,” he said.
Jonas Geissler, an attorney for the Justice Department's civil rights division in Washington, DC, hammered that point earlier in the hearing.
"Those agencies may be beyond the current reach of this" proposed legal settlement, Geissler said.
That admission came early in Tuesday’s watershed court session—the first chance for the public to sound off on a deal many think should go further, and the most substantive chance yet for the city and the feds to defend the particulars of a deal they negotiated specifically to avoid a court trial. US District Court Judge Michael Simon says he’ll decide if he likes it as early as mid-March.
(Hit the jump to keep reading, and look for a longer story in tomorrow's paper.)
That deal—which eventually gained the assent of the Portland Police Association—includes changes to how police are trained and use force. It gave way to the creation of a special mental health unit. It’s also fueled changes in oversight that some say don’t go far enough because they don’t empower civilians.
But Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland reacted dourly to the clarification about the treatment centers during a break in the proceedings. He invoked the names of Keaton Otis, Aaron Campbell, and James Chasse Jr.—men killed by Portland police during the past decade amid struggles with mental health.
“What they needed was a safe sanctuary. I’m not sure training and policy would have made a difference,” Renaud says. “Those facilities would make a brick-and-mortar difference. ‘Aspirational’ is a broken promise.”
Ellen Osoinach, a deputy city attorney, told the court during the city’s presentation that the hazy commitment to building those facilities was intentional.
“Rather than obligate the city to run a mental health facility,” she said, “the city accepted a requirement to work in cooperation with other government agencies.”
And as the city sees it, Osoinach said, it’s lived up to its commitment. The council, for the past few years, has including a call for increased mental health funding in its state and federal legislative lobbying wish lists.
“The city has followed through on that commitment by lobbying aggressively for increased for funding for mental health services for the past three years,” she told the court.