The estate of Michael Ray Townsend has filed a wrongful death lawsuit over Townsend’s killing in June by Portland police after he called 911 for help.
“Michael reached out. He used a lot of the (mental health) resources and did the things that any mother, sister, family member would want their loved one to do,” Townsend’s sister Rachel Steven said. “The wrong people responded. This was a very serious call of someone who was scared, needed help and expressed those things.”
Townsend called 911 while experiencing suicidal ideations and told the dispatcher he had the means to hurt himself, according to a transcript of the 911 call. Paramedics and police were dispatched to the Northeast Portland Motel 6 where Townsend told them he wanted to go to the hospital. According to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, when officer Brett Emmons told Townsend they would need to pat him down before taking him to the hospital, Townsend refused and pulled a pointed tool out of his pocket.
Video released by the Portland Police Bureau shows two officers and four firefighters stepping back as Townsend advances on them. In the video, Emmons appears to reach for his taser while officer Curtis Brown draws his firearm and shoots Townsend, who falls to the ground.
A grand jury chose not to indict Brown on criminal charges in September. The Portland Police Bureau is conducting an internal investigation of the shooting to determine if the officers violated any policies.
Townsend’s medical records show he had tried to get mental health services at least 14 times since moving to Portland in 2015. Two days before he was shot and killed, Townsend was in the Legacy Good Samaritan emergency department for suicidal ideations and abdominal pain.
“A lot of his behavior in that hospital, including chewing through his IV and sticking objects inside the electrical sockets, really speaks volumes to what mental state he was in and the severity of his needs,” Steven said. “He really wasn’t in a true position to fully take care of himself.”
The wrongful death complaint, filed Friday in Multnomah County circuit court, alleges the city should have dispatched more qualified mental health professionals to help Townsend.
“The City has various teams of workers with specialized training and knowledge in dealing with mental health crises,” the complaint reads. “The City did not dispatch any of these teams to serve and protect Mr. Townsend on June 24, 2021.”
While Portland is currently grappling with how to better respond to mental health calls, the lawsuit argues there are already a number of options available the city could use. For example, the lawsuit says Townsend’s call could have been routed to the County Mental Health Call Center or to the Tri-County 911 Service Coordination Program, a program designed to connect frequent 911 callers to health and social services that might better fit their needs.
Instead, the lawsuit says, “residents like Mr. Townsend who call 911 during a mental health crisis often end up dealing with armed police officers, and if they survive their encounters with armed police officers, often end up in the criminal justice system, rather than the mental health system.”
The family’s lawyer, Michael Fuller, said one of the issues a jury potentially would have to decide is whether or not there is a better way to handle mental health calls.
“Our complaint lays out what we would say would be various better ways to respond to that call,” Fuller said. “Nonlethal ways, ways where we’re utilizing people trained in mental health.”
Steven, who works as an advocate for people with disabilities, said there was no reason to kill her brother.
“When you’re going through a mental health crisis, a lot of times you have to utilize things like the wait strategy,” she said. “You may have to wait for three hours. You have somebody who no longer wants to live, and I know your shift might be up in 30 minutes and you want to get home.”
The family is not seeking monetary damages. Instead, they want an order requiring the city of Portland to better train officers responding to welfare check calls and requirements for 911 dispatchers to make “good faith efforts” to route mental health calls to teams with specialized training in dealing with mental health crises.
“I can never get my brother back,” Steven said. “All I can do is focus on making the world a safer place, a better place, for people like him.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as the city’s police commissioner, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.