A BRUISING MARATHON seems to have finally finished for Portland police officials and city hall—now that a federal judge has accepted a wide-ranging package of policy changes, more than three years in the making, meant to rein in officers' use of excessive force against people with mental illness.
US District Court Judge Michael Simon ended months of legal wrangling on Friday, August 29, when he issued a five-page ruling formally approving a series of reforms first put before him in late 2012. Simon is expected to retain limited oversight of the approved deal for up to five more years.
"After reviewing the settlement agreement and considering the views of the parties and all public comments received," Simon wrote in his opinion, first reported by the Mercury, "the court finds that the settlement agreement, as a whole, is fair, adequate, and reasonable."
That ruling comes more than three years after the US Department of Justice (DOJ), in the spring of 2011, first announced its plans to investigate the Portland Police Bureau in the wake of several high-profile police shootings. It also comes just under two years after the DOJ issued stinging findings accusing the bureau of constitutional violations by allowing its officers to engage in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, particularly against those in crisis.
Simon's seal of recognition might have come far sooner if not for legal maneuvers by the Portland Police Association (PPA), the city's rank-and-file police union, and community advocates led by the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform.
And because of that delay, Simon has blessed several changes that have already been put in place: new limits on how cops can use their Tasers, revised use-of-force and performance policies, training that emphasizes de-escalation, speedier misconduct investigations, and the creation of new units meant to deal with mental health.
"We all want our police bureau to treat all people with humanity and dignity, and to have the tools and training necessary to deal with the complexities of mental illness," wrote Mayor Charlie Hales, who inherited the reforms, largely negotiated by his predecessor, Sam Adams, and also the fight to see them implemented. "This agreement, now affirmed, solidifies Portland's commitment to serving our diverse community."
But Simon's ruling also stakes out some new ground.
As he warned he might do earlier this year, Simon has ordered everyone back in his courtroom once a year for updates on the pace and progress of reforms. The city and PPA both strenuously objected to the reunions, arguing Simon had no right to impose them.
It's still unclear, as of press time, if either party can or will try to challenge Simon's ruling based on their objections.
PPA President Daryl Turner has declined a handful of requests to comment on Simon's ruling. Hales' statement suggests a willingness to move forward, but his office hasn't returned messages explicitly asking if that's the case.
City Attorney Tracy Reeve, in an interview with the Mercury, gave the following statement: "We're delighted [Judge Simon] has entered the settlement agreement and the city is pleased to be going forward with the settlement agreement we negotiated with the DOJ."
It could be there are other things to think about.
The reform package also calls for the hiring of an independent monitor and the seating of a community advisory board within the deal's first 90 days.
City hall's been working on hiring the monitor, called a "compliance officer/community liaison," since January—well before Simon was ready to rule. Officials could announce the three finalists for the job in the next several days.
That milestone, however, has come earlier than anticipated, in part because so few candidates applied. A selection committee will consider the three remaining names publicly before sending them to the city's elected officials for a final round of interviews.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz, leading that effort, says the committee can still decide if one or more of the final candidates should not advance—forcing a new round of recruiting.
One police reform advocate, Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, is rooting for that implosion and dropping names like ex-Governor Ted Kulongoski or Paul De Muniz, former chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
"We're going to regret going with persons who are inexperienced or unfamiliar with our issues," Renaud says. "If the advisory group can say, 'No, these people are not sufficient,' then we can shift gears and go out and recruit."
In September 2012, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) turned up troubling details surrounding Portland cops' training, and the lax scrutiny officers received when accused of wrongdoing. The findings confirmed what many had long suspected: that Portland's police had a pattern of using unconstitutional force against the mentally ill.
It turned out cops weren't being adequately schooled in how to deal with often-delicate situations—some cops would refer to people in mental health crises as "mentals"—and the DOJ said Portland officers were more fearful of people with mental illness than police in other cities. And it wasn't just mental health that cops had a problem with. The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) had been using an infamous 2009 incident where a 12-year-old girl was shot with a beanbag shotgun as a good example of how to handle a situation.
Meanwhile, the system set up to discipline officers who'd overstepped their bounds? The feds said it was so "byzantine" that it was ineffective.
Among the prescribed changes:
• The PPB has revised its force and performance directives, stipulating that officers must use only enough muscle as necessary to "lawfully perform" their duties. Officers also can be graded on the decisions they make leading up to the use of force. The bureau also created a "discipline matrix," spelling out likely consequences for various kinds of misdeeds.
• The PPB revised its Taser policy, dictating the weapons should be used against someone with mental illness only in "exigent circumstances," and urging cops not to cycle their Tasers more than twice when trying to apprehend someone. They're also now told to try handcuffing someone between Taser cycles, so long as it's "feasible" and safe.
• New quarterly audits of use-of-force cases were implemented, looking specifically at mental health information. Sergeants now respond after each use of force.
• Officers are now given "refresher training" on dealing with people in mental health crisis—in addition to the 40 hours of training required before they're allowed on the street.
• The bureau created a Behavioral Health Unit advised by community stakeholders, expanded its roving pairings of cops and mental health workers, and started an enhanced Crisis Intervention Team.
• The city dramatically sped up its timeframe for investigating misconduct and the improper use of force, promising to finish investigations and appeals within 180 days.
• The reforms made mention of constructing and staffing either a walk-in or drop-off center for people in crisis, tied to health-care reform efforts. But that multimillion-dollar provision has languished, with officials declaring it merely "aspirational."
FEBRUARY 19, 2010: Then-Mayor Sam Adams joins then-Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman in heeding outrage over the fatal shooting of Aaron Campbell and asking for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate.
JUNE 7-8, 2011: DOJ says it won't bring charges in the Campbell shooting, instead announcing an investigation into whether Portland police officers' overall use of force violates the Constitution or federal law.
SEPTEMBER 13, 2012: DOJ issues a harsh letter, announcing, "There is reasonable cause to believe that the Portland Police Bureau is engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force against people with mental illness." DOJ pledges to work with city leaders on reforms.
NOVEMBER 14, 2012: Portland City Council unanimously approves tentative reforms, spelling out changes in training, oversight, force policies, and misconduct investigations.
FEBRUARY 19, 2013: US District Court Judge Michael Simon, asked to approve the deal, allows the Portland Police Association (PPA) to join the case as a defendant, and confers "friend of the court" status on the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform. He sends everyone into mediation over potential changes.
JULY 18, 2013: Simon threatens a "bench trial" after mediation fails to solve an impasse between the city, feds, and PPA over how the deal affects the PPA's labor contract.
NOVEMBER 6, 2013: The city and PPA unveil an accord on both police reforms and the union's labor contract, making some minor tweaks while clearing the way for policy changes to move forward even without Simon's assent.
JANUARY 8, 2014: After several public hearings, city council approves federally mandated code changes meant to speed up misconduct investigations—over the PPA's objections.
FEBRUARY 18, 2014: Simon holds a "fairness hearing" on the deal, where, for a day and a half, community members say they don't think the changes go far enough. The city also admits, during testimony at the hearing, that much-hyped plans for a crisis center are merely "aspirational."
MARCH 24, 2014: Simon indicates he'll accept the reforms, at last, but insists on annual updates in his courtroom—a condition that almost immediately sees the city and PPA balk and prompts several more rounds of arguments and briefings.
JULY 2, 2014: Simon closes the official record without the city or PPA agreeing to annual updates in his courtroom, while promising a decision imminently.
AUGUST 29, 2014: Simon accepts the settlement agreement—still insisting on annual updates, potentially leaving room for an appeal or challenge.
NOVEMBER 28, 2014: Ninety days after Simon's order, the city is supposed to have a compliance officer/community liaison in place, as well as a community advisory board, to help oversee the reforms.
SEPTEMBER 14, 2015: Simon's first scheduled annual update hearing.—Denis C. Theriault