Feds: Portland Police Bureau uses 'excessive force' with mentally ill

Feds: Portland Police Bureau uses 'excessive force' with mentally ill »Play Video
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez, left, speaks as Portland Mayor Sam Adams, right, and Portland Police Chief Mike Reese listen during a news conference in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Department of Justice said Thursday that the Portland Police Bureau violated the U.S. Constitution by engaging in a “pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness.”

The Justice Department opened their investigation in June 2011 after an 18 month period where Portland police officers were involved with eight shootings with mentally ill people.

“The findings are very blunt in their assessment that we get a failing grade for dealing with the growing number of Portlanders dealing with mental health issues,” said Mayor Sam Adams.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said investigators found a pattern of excessive force against both people with mental illnesses or people perceived to have mental issues. That includes using force that wasn't justified or using more force than was necessary.

"We conclude that this pattern or practice results from deficiencies in policy, training and supervision," the report said. "We recognize that many of the systemic deficiencies discussed in this letter originated prior to the current PPB administration, which has been aggressive in pursuing reform”

Perez said the Justice Department and the city have reached a preliminary agreement on improvements, such as increased training, expedited investigations and a new oversight committee.

Perez and U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall both sounded optimistic during a news conference about the report when they talked about how the city could fix problems moving forward.

“There is no city in America with a better track record of working together to find solutions to problems such as these,” Marshall said

Perez said Portland's mayor and police chief cooperated with the investigation.

When looking at how Portland police officers used force, the report singled out stun gun use, saying officers frequently discharged them without justification or used them too many times on a given suspect.

The report also said officers too often used force for relatively minor offenses.

Federal officials also said Oregon's statewide mental health system has "gaps in services" that often make the police the first responders when people are in a mental health crisis.

"Given the anemic community-based mental health system, I appreciate that the findings note that the already tough job of our police officers has gotten even tougher," Adams said in an open letter to Portlanders about the findings. | Read the full letter

The report found that officers often have the burden of being "first responders to individuals in mental health crisis."

The police bureau said that between 2001 and 2011, the number of calls each year for people attempteing or threatening suicide has nearly doubled.

"As a law enforcement agency, over the last decade, we have had a dynamic shift from responding to criminal issues to responding to social disorder," said police chief Mike Reese. "Unfortunately, our system has given officers less options to help people who are afflicted with mental health issues and sometimes concurrent drug and alcohol problems. We have not been adequately prepared for the changing circumstances in our community, related to mental health."

Moving forward

Mayor Adams, Chief Reese and the federal officials behind the report said on Thursday they were committed to improving how the Portland Police Bureau deals with mentally ill people.

"Fundamentally I think we have to treat people with mental health crisis with compassion and empathy," Reese said. "We can't treat them the same way we do as someone that's committed a bank robbery."

To help achieve that, city and federal officials laid out a series of preliminary agreement of steps they city and police bureau will take. They include:

  • Establishing policies that give officers clear guidance when dealing with people who have a mental illness or who are perceived to have a mental illness. Specifically, the city will lay out techniques for officers to de-escalate encounters stemming from non-criminal welfare checks or for low-level offenses.
  • Having more specially-trained officers and civilians to deal with crisis situations
  • Having a system to identify gaps in policy, training and supervision
  • Expediting investigations about possible misconduct while still doing a thorough job
  • Creating a body to ensure community oversight of reforms

The City of Portland can be held legally responsible if these reforms are not implemented. The city and federal officials have to commit to a final agreement by October 12, 2012.

Union response

Daryl Turner, the president of the Portland Police Association, said he disagrees with the Justice Department's position that Portland officers engaged in a pattern of unreasonable force against the mentally ill.

He also pointed out the report says what officers have been saying for years: Oregon's mental health infastructure is broken and leaves officers as "frontline responders to the mentally ill."

"The equation is simple," Turner said. "We need more officers to help address the increased demands placed on them by a broken mental health infastructure."

Federal officials have conducted similar reviews in other states. Seattle officials recently reached a deal with the Department of Justice, agreeing to court oversight and independent monitoring of the city's police department.

The issue of how police deal with the mentally ill has been a topic for years in Portland.

The DOJ announced its Portland investigation in the aftermath of the death of Aaron Campbell, an unarmed man who was fatally shot by officers who responded to a call that he was threatening suicide.

Another prominent case involved the death James Chasse Jr., a mentally ill man who died after he was chased and tackled by officers after he was said to have urinated in public in 2006.

Full news conference about Department of Justice report: