Police use of force against mentally ill Portlanders has only increased since the US Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the city in 2012 for Portland Police Bureau’s (PPB) disproportionate use of violence against people with a mental illness. This data came to light during a routine federal court check-in between the DOJ and the city over the progress of settlement agreement reached after the 2012 lawsuit.
A court filing by Jonathan Brown, a retired senior scientist at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, detailed that police use of force against people with a mental illness has slightly increased since 2017, based on PPB’s own data. At the same time, Brown found that the type of force has intensified.
“I was surprised to discover that the number of applications and the severity of force used in force events involving mentally impaired citizens has been rising quickly and steadily over the last four years,” wrote Brown.
Brown submitted this data to the court as a volunteer for the Mental Health Alliance (MHA), one of the amici curiae (or a “friend of the court” who is allowed to submit input on litigation) in the case.
After delivering these facts to US District Judge Michael Simon in court Friday, Simon interjected: "Could you repeat that?"
Eben Hoffer, another member of the MHA, pointed to this data as a proof that the settlement agreement has not addressed the true problem identified by the DOJ.
"Changing outcomes for real people," Hoffer said, "that is something we should be measuring."
Brown recommended that the DOJ bring in an outside court monitor to oversee the progress of the settlement agreement reached in 2014, in which the city agreed to meet certain goals regarding police training, use-of-force policies, accountability measures, and other tools to improve the PPB.
"More transparency will increase respect for the police and help them do a better job," said Brown on Friday.
The Friday court hearing was just the latest in the years-long negotiations between the city of Portland and the DOJ after reaching a settlement agreement in 2014.
The DOJ decided the city had met all the terms of the settlement in early 2020, a benchmark that came with a promise to finally release the city from the agreement if the city could continue to meet the settlement terms for one additional year. That didn’t happen. According to the DOJ, the actions taken by PPB officers against the public during the racial justice protests of 2020 immediately pushed the city out of compliance with the settlement agreement’s requirements around use of force.
To make up for these missteps, the DOJ proposed an amendment to the original settlement agreement that the city has agreed to—one that includes a number of new accountability measures, including a mandate for body worn cameras and penalties for PPB lieutenants who green-lit officer use of force in 2020.
Friday’s court hearing was an opportunity for US District Judge Michael Simon to decide whether or not the new amendment is “fair, reasonable, and adequate.”
Several other parties echoed Brown's ask for a court-appointed monitor Friday, including Portland Copwatch and the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform (AMAC).
"If we continue to have eruptions and breaking of the settlement agreement," said LeRoy Haynes co-chair of AMAC, "we must seriously look at a court-appointed monitor as a remedy to establish oversight and implementation of a settlement agreement."
Government lawyers and community members raised other concerns regarding the settlement agreement's future at the Friday hearing. Specifically, many discussed the future of PPB's body camera program, which continues to be negotiated between the city and PPB's rank-and-file union, the Portland Police Association (PPA), behind closed doors.
Simon accepted the amendments to the agreement at the Friday hearing. The DOJ will again meet in court with the city for an update on the settlement this July.
It's unclear if the data presented by Brown will impact the future of the settlement agreement. That's because the agreement wasn't hinged on PPB actually reducing use of force against people with a mental illness. While the city agreed to adopt new training procedures, data collection, and oversight, the agreement did not mandate a reduction in the number of people with a mental illness who were injured or killed by Portland police.
This disconnect has come up in past meetings Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP), the community group created to advise the city on meeting its settlement requirements.
“I want to point out the difference between outcomes and outputs,” said Lakayana Drury, who served as co-chair of PCCEP, during a 2019 meeting. “The settlement agreement addresses outputs... but until we know what their outcomes are, how are we even able to assess what’s being done? Yeah, there’s new police training, but is it leading to officers using less force?”
Denis Rosenbaum, the city-appointed contractor tasked with evaluating the city’s compliance with the settlement, said that its not the city's job to change.
“You can debate what should be included in the settlement agreement, but that’s how it was written,” Rosenbaum told the Mercury in 2019. “Our hands are tied.”
Members of the public were invited to testify before Simon Friday. Patrick Nolen, a former member of PCCEP, told the court that Brown's analysis made him "sad."
"We're worse off now that we were in 2017," said Nolen. "That’s something I don’t think we can accept."