Portland mayor says changing police culture is still top of mind

Portland mayor says changing police culture is still top of mind
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

“Hi, this is Charlie. I’m so sorry about what happened to your son. As you know, we are trying to change the culture of the police department and we’re not there yet.”

That was a message Portland Mayor Charlie Hales left for one of his staffers last week after her son had a run-in with the police department that resulted in his arrest. The situation is a bit of a he said-he said with the son alleging excessive force and the police report painting a different picture.

The mayor says when he left the message he was reacting as a father, trying to comfort a staffer. If he had known the full extent of the murkiness, he might not have referred to the “culture” of the department.

That said, the mayor maintains changing the culture of the department is very much at the top of his list. In fact, it was one of his top three priorities when he took office in January and remains so today.

The list of missteps from the bureau over the years is plentiful; the list includes notable cases like James Chasse and Aaron Campbell. The Department of Justice concluded that the police bureau has demonstrated a pattern of using excessive force when it comes to dealing with mental illness.

Just last week an independent group concluded that the department does not do enough to show that it has learned from its mistakes.

“People have a right to be protected by the police and they have a right to not feel that they need to be protected from the police,” said Hales. “We have a problem where the relationship between the department and the people they protect is not a healthy one.”

Hales, who meets with Chief Mike Reese and other police officials on a regular basis, said that the relationship has suffered from some of the higher-profile police-involved shootings and incidents where Tasers have been deployed.

“The relationship has to be healthier, stronger, built on trust. We can make that happen,” Hales said.

While part of the problem is perception, the police bureau recognizes it needs to make changes.

Part of the problem has been the increase in both homelessness – Portland is consistently among the cities with the largest population of homeless people in the country – and people with mental illness.

That has put officers on the front lines of a battle they didn’t necessarily know they would be fighting.

In the past few years, the police have seen the number of suicide calls they deal with double, as has the number of adults who receive some sort of mental health service from Multnomah County.

Just this year – prodded by the Justice Department – the bureau has started a behavioral health unit and enhanced crisis intervention team, both staffed with officers who have received extra training.

Even before the Justice Department report came out, the bureau had been working on emphasizing de-escalation, which seemed to be working if a decrease in officer-involved shootings can used as a yardstick.

And in just the past five years, the number of incidents where a use of force has been reported has dropped by nearly half.

Which brings us back to the son of the city hall staffer.

He admits he was drunk and may have cursed at an officer, according to family members. And that’s pretty much all that’s known for sure – other than the fact that he ended up under arrest, charged with disorderly conduct.

The police report says he “was not visibly injured during our custody” while he said he has a hospital report that indicates otherwise.

While it will likely take the Independent Police Review Board to sort out what happened, it’s important to note that out of the more than 400,000 contacts that police officers have citizens each year, one quarter of one percent result in a use of force by the officer.

That, the police bureau concedes, is still too many.