11/1/2014

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Field Notes

As judge considers settlement, questions remain on dealings with mentally ill

For hours on Tuesday, dozens of people took to the courtroom of Federal Judge Michael Simon to give their opinion on whether a proposed settlement between the Portland Police Bureau and the United States Department of Justice is “fair, reasonable and adequate.”

The Justice Department had determined that Portland police engaged in a pattern of practice of using excessive force against people either with mental illness or perceived to have mental illness.

The settlement, which came after months of negotiations, includes policy changes – particularly when it comes to use of a Taser – as well changes to training and oversight.

Many of those who spoke were against the settlement, saying it didn’t go far enough.


The state chair of the NAACP said the investigation that led to the settlement didn’t go far enough because it didn’t address whether Portland Police engaged in racial discrimination; Mark Chaisse, whose brother James died in police custody, asked that a court-appointed monitor be put in place; Reverend Allen Bethel of the Albina Ministerial Alliance said the agreement should have also ended police practice of allowing officers involved in a shooting to wait 48 hours before being questioned.


A deputy city attorney said while the city doesn’t agree with all of the Justice Department’s conclusions, they believe change is appropriate and have already instituted many of the suggested reforms and a representative of the Justice Department warned that if the agreement is not accepted, there’s no guarantee that there ever will be one.


While the investigation and proposed settlement focuses on the interactions between Portland Police and the mentally ill, there is evidence that this is one small part of a much larger problem.


According to a Justice Department report last month, in 2006 they started investigating conditions at Oregon State Hospital and four years later expanded the probe to look at the state’s mental health system with an eye toward “examining the community services and supports available to persons with mental illness throughout Oregon.”


The report found Oregon had made “limited progress” when it came to decreasing the use of restrictive institutional settings; that there is a lack of “adequate high-intensity services” and critical supports for housing and employment and that while there is a “high quantity” of services around the state, they do not meet the “evidence based models for quality.”


The emphasis in that paragraph is from the Justice Department.


After the report was issued, Justice Department officials met with representatives of the state who informed them of some steps they planned to take.


“Many of these proposals the Department heard about for the first time in” that meeting, a Justice Department investigator wrote afterward.


The official referred to them as “a long overdue first step in addressing the gaps in Oregon’s community-based system that the Department and the state now agree exist.”


One of those proposals became a little more concrete last week when it was announced that the state had given a $500,000 grant to an organization to set up Multnomah County’s first dedicated team of professionals for helping people with mental illness who come in frequent contact with the police.


What remains to be seen is how long the program will last. Whether it continues beyond one year will be determined by how well the program does.


Which brings up back to Tuesday’s hearing in Federal Court.


The issue before Judge Michael Simon is whether or not to accept the settlement.


There are a lot of people who question whether it could have gone further. Many even urged Judge Simon to make changes to the settlement, something he says he does not have the power to do.


While the settlement is supported by the City Council and the police union, among others, even the city concedes it’s not perfect.


But, city officials say, it is an important step and they are making progress.


The city has even created a new tax on land-line phones that will raise approximately $5 million each year to help pay for the reforms.


The hearing continues Wednesday but it’s expected there won’t be any decision from Judge Simon until at least mid-March.


If he decides to reject the settlement, it means the Justice Department may proceed with a lawsuit against the Police Bureau to force changes.


When it comes to dealing with the mentally ill, progress has been made.


Whether it has been enough remains to be seen.

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