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Q&A: DOJ Critical Of Portland Police Over Use Of Force

OPB | Sept. 13, 2012 10:19 a.m. | Portland

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The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that the Portland Police Bureau has “engaged in a pattern and practice of excessive force against people with mental illness.”

OPB’s Kristian Foden-Vencil has been covering this issue and joins us in the studio now. Hello.

Kristian: Hi, Beth

Beth: This sounds pretty serious. Can you give us a little background?

Kristian: Absolutely. Last year, Mayor Sam Adams, Commissioner Dan Saltzman and many others called for a civil rights investigation into the police.

It came after a series high profile cases, like the shooting of Aaron Campbell, who was distraught over the death of his brother; and the death of James Chasse, who was mentally ill and died after being forcibly arrested.

So, the Department of Justice has now finished that investigation and delivered this report.

Beth: Apart from the finding that police use unreasonable force against people with mental illness, what else was in the report?

Kristian: Well it’s extensive and it found officers used stun guns when they weren’t justified - or stunned suspects repeatedly without reasonable cause.

One example in the report, involved a man who was screaming in his apartment. Police got a key and found him naked on the floor shouting for help. When he saw them, he leapt-up and ran towards them. But an officer immediately fired his stun gun. The man fell to the ground and when he attempted to get up, he was stunned three more times. Anyway, it turned out he was diabetic and experiencing a medical emergency.

So the report has several of those kinds of examples and it concludes that the police bureau acted unconstitutionally.
But I want to make it clear that the Justice Department did not to point to problems with individual officers. Instead, the Department found that there are key deficiencies in the mental health infrastructure which leave police as the line of last resort when dealing with the mentally ill. Here’s Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez.

Thomas Perez: “The challenges we identified in Portland, are not unique to Portland. Police work has transformed dramatically in recent years. I remember vividly a Portland police officers who described how, years ago, encounters with people who have mental illness were few and far between. Today that person pointed out, it is a daily occurrence.”

Beth: How have the police bureau and Mayor Sam Adams reacted?

Kristian: Well, the mayor said there’s a need for change and that the police bureau has already begun that change. He was also pleased the report highlighted the problems in Oregon’s mental health system.

Sam Adams: “Without defensiveness or finger pointing, we all need to absorb the seriousness of this critic and urgent need for change. We all need to take our portion of the responsibility to change the situation.”

Kristian: The chief of police, Mike Reese, took the report hard. He was sombre, but stressed that his agency has already entered into a preliminary agreement with the Department of Justice to rectify the situation.
He told me afterwards that his officers will be trained to look for the difference between a suspicious criminal and someone who is mentally ill or in crisis.

He said officers will be trained to de-escalate situations and check to see if someone is not taking commands because they’re being belligerent or because they’re having mental health problems.

Finally, he said he’s hoping for new tools, that will provide officers the information they need when they’re in a tricky situation.

Mike Reese: “There’s a lot of information that health care providers have, that we don’t have access too and in a moment of crisis I think we should access to that information if we’re going to provide a better service to that person. Conversely we have a lot of information we would be happy to share with mental health providers so that they know this person is interacting with police frequently. There are things we can do in terms of dispatch protocols. So when dispatchers take that 911 call from a citizen, and they ask, police, fire or medical, we want them to ask mental health.”

Beth: Finally, how are people in the mental health community reacting to this report.

Kristian: Good question. In a nutshell, they’re pleased. Derald Walker of Cascadia Behavioral Health says he hopes this will wind up helping the mentally ill.

Derald Walker:”I think sometimes unfortunately what has to happen in these situations is that the Department of Justice has to step in, render an opinion and almost force our system to provide the funding necessary to really get us up to where we should be.”

Beth: So, what’s next?

Kristian: Well, a series of public meetings will be organized for the next month. That’ll give Portland residents a chance to look at the preliminary agreement — and perhaps add their own recommendations.

Beth: Thank you Kristian.

Kristian: My pleasure.

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Portland Police Trying New Methods Of Dealing With The Mentally Ill - April 04, 2011

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On the Web

Portland Mayor Sam Adams

Portland Police DOJ Site

U.S. DOJ

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