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Doug Brown

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An alliance of mental health care providers and advocates in Portland are hoping to play a larger role in the court process that tracks federally-mandated reforms within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). That's largely because these reforms specifically address PPB's pattern of excessive (and, at times, fatal) violence against people with mental illness.

In 2012, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigators discovered that PPB officers disproportionally use force against people experiencing a mental health crisis, forcing the city to agree to implementing a set of sweeping police reforms.

Since settling on those reforms in 2014which includes new policies for officers encountering someone with a mental illness and expediting police misconduct investigations—lawyers representing the city and the DOJ have met in federal court at least once a year to measure the city's progress. Two groups have been granted close involvement in these discussions: the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform (a faith-based civil rights organization) and the Portland Police Association (the PPB union). Both of these groups have been deemed "friends of the court" by US District Judge Michael Simon, meaning they are allowed to present oral arguments and court briefings during these routine check-ins.

But, neither of those groups represent the specific community the settlement addresses: Portlanders with mental illness.

Enter the newly-formed Mental Health Alliance (MHA), a group made up of members of the Mental Health Association of Portland, Disability Rights Oregon and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. The MHA grew out of frustration from mental health advocates who didn't see the slow-moving settlement promises helping the population it was meant to protect.

"The Alliance's clients and peers have a life and death interest in the proper implementation of the decree," reads MHA's court petition filed yesterday by attorney Juan Chavez. "There is no focused voice from the mental health community currently in these proceedings, and without this community's participation... the current arrangement will continue to victimize Portlanders with mental illness when they interact with the Portland Police Bureau."

The petition asks Judge Simon to grant MHA the same "friend of the court" access that AMAC and PPA are allowed. The MHA petition specifically points out how, despite the introduction of new PPB resources and programs spurred by the DOJ settlement, Portland police are still killing an overwhelming number of people who are experiencing a mental health crises.

For an example, the petition points to the April death of John Elifritz at the hands of the Portland police (and one Multnomah County deputy) in a Southeast Portland homeless shelter.

"Despite Mr. Elifritz demonstrating clear signs of mental distress, including self-harm, Portland police entered the houseless shelter where Mr. Elifrtiz had entered and shot him from across the room," Chavez writes.

In an interview with the Mercury, Chavez said the MHA hopes to bring momentum to what's become a sluggish oversight process. The process of reviewing Portland's adherence to the settlement agreement has largely been stalled since former Mayor Charlie Hales decided to dissolve a community oversight group—one that was mandated by the original DOJ agreement. Mayor Ted Wheeler said he'd create a group to replace it in July 2017. It still has yet to meet.

The Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition says it supports the MHA's request to join the case.

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"We think that they will bring a certain perspective to the table," says Rev. Doctor LeRoy Haynes, a longtime member of the coalition. "It will add and not take away from reform."

Chavez says he expects a response from Judge Simon by the end of September. The next court check in with the DOJ is on October 4, and he hopes MHA will be there.

"This litigation is stalled," Chavez says. "And the voice of the MHA can help move this forward."