U.S. Department of Justice Finds Portland Police Guilty of Using Excessive Force Against People With Mental Illness

Chief Reese Deletes “I disagree with the Department of Justice’s findings” From His Online Statement


Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez speaks to an audience of reporters and Portland Police Bureau command staff Thursday at press conference on the 14th floor of the Portland Justice Center. To the right is U.S. Attorney for Oregon Amanda Marshall, Police Chief Michael Reese, and Mayor Sam Adams.

Story by Pete Shaw

At a crowded press conference on the 14th floor of the Portland Justice Center on Thursday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its findings of an investigation, launched on June 8, 2011.  The DOJ reached the conclusion that the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) had “engaged in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness.” The query was conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon and was initiated by Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who had been police commissioner for a couple of years prior to Adams taking over the bureau in June, 2010.

The final report stated, “We found instances that support a pattern of dangerous use of force against persons who posed little or no threat and who could not, as a result of their mental illness, comply with officers; commands. We also found that PPB employs practices that escalate the use of force where there were clear earlier junctures when the forced could have been avoided.”

As well, the investigation found that “PPB officers use electronic control weapons (“ECWs” (commonly referred to as “Tasers”)) in circumstances when ECW use is not justified or use ECWs multiple times when only a single use is justified in encounters with people with actual or perceived mental illness.

The report also stated “PPB officers use more force than necessary in effectuating arrests for low level offenses involving people who are or appear to be in mental health crisis.”

Beyond the scope of the investigation, although mentioned informally in the report, the DOJ found problems in the relationship between the PPB and communities of color, with “the most prevalent concern…the often tense relationship between PPB and the African American Community.” Noting that racist policing was beyond the scope of the investigation, the report stated that some members of communities of color “perceive” a pattern or practice of “bias-based policing.” A person quoted in this section of the report said, “They protect the white folk and police the black folk.” Despite not being part of the investigation, this section of the report was a stinging indictment of racism both within the PPB and between the PPB and communities of color.

Amanda Marshall, U.S. Attorney for Oregon, and Tom Perez, Assistant Attorney General in the DOJ Civil Rights Division, emphasized the need for the PPB to receive necessary training to avoid future violations of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.  However, they also persistently emphasized the professionalism of the PPB, all but declaring the ten instances of deadly force against people with mental illness the work of a few bad apples. At the same time, Perez noted that the report should be read within the context of two greater systemic problems: “systemic deficiencies” that “originated prior to the current PPB administration,” particularly “deficiencies in policy, training, and supervision;” and the decrepit mental health system in Oregon that has now made the police the first responders to situations involving people with mental illness.

According to the DOJ press release issued, the DOJ and the City of Portland “have preliminarily reached an agreement” that will result in giving officers the “necessary guidance when encountering someone with mental illness or perceived to have mental illness,” as well as setting in place various bodies that will create an “early warning system to identify gaps in policy training and supervision,” “expedite the investigations of complaints of misconduct while preserving the thoroughness and quality of investigations and community participation,” and “create a body to ensure increased community oversight of reforms.” A final agreement will be reached by October 12.

When asked by a reporter for his initial reaction to the report, Chief of Police Mike Reese said “it’s disappointing to learn the Department of Justice believes you haven’t got it right.” Reese is no doubt being truthful, but one should consider why he was disappointed. People involved with various protests surrounding the Occupy Movement, particularly the unpermitted march on May Day that involved PPB officers slamming their bicycles into people, smashing their heads on the street, and dragging a person by her hair, will remember that the PPB figured they got that one right.

In perhaps an insight to the different behind the scenes reactions to the DOJ report amongst City Hall, the PPB, and the police union, Chief Reese initially released a statement saying that he disagreed with the report, though he did not specify exactly why he disagreed with it.  Later, that statement was modified and the specific statement he made about disagreeing with the report was deleted.  Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner said, “I disagree with the USDOJ’s conclusion that the Bureau has engaged in a pattern and practice of unreasonable force against the mentally ill.”.  He instead called for more police to be hired.

Despite all the praise from Marshall and Perez regarding the shining example that is the PPB, including Police Chief Reese’s desire to take the lead in putting it “at the forefront of best practices,” and the city’s willingness to do whatever it takes to provide all aid it can on this journey, glaring inconsistencies and worries abound. For one, according to the Statement of Intent handed out at the press conference, the city of Portland has not conceded “that there is a pattern or practice” as outlined by the Department of Justice.

When Mayor Adams was asked about the PPB’s Training Advisory Council at which members of the community would have input on officer training, Adams said the proceedings of the council would be open, save for the “executive closed door sessions” so as not to “give away the playbook” to criminals. In other words, the council will be open only when the PPB and the mayor decide the public should know what is going on. If the history of government secrecy is any guide, the majority of information the public should know will be discussed behind closed doors.

Another fundamental problem appears to be an inherent contradiction in how police officers will be trained. On the one hand they are trained in violence, particularly to meet force with greater force, and the mentality is largely one of confrontation. Now they are going to receive some training in how to meet what has previously been defined as force with compassion. Can an officer really be expected to turn training one off with the flick of an internal switch? Will police cars come equipped with magnetic placards reading “What’s Wrong With Peace, Love, and Understanding?”  that they can place over “To Serve and Protect,” while playing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” on the stereo?

Chief Reese was asked what would happen, even after being trained, if a police officer suddenly found himself face to face with someone wielding a knife.  How would the officer respond–which training would he instinctively call upon?  Reese responded–without getting into specifics–that “we need to treat people in crisis with compassion and empathy while protecting ourselves.” For all the praise lavished upon him for standing up to lead the PPB to the promised land, Reese employed the same verbage that has been consistently used in justifying many police uses of deadly force: the officer was protecting himself.

If the shooting of people with mental illness, as well as people of color, is indeed a systemic problem, what hope do we have of solving the problem, regardless of how many tools the Department of Justice provides, when community oversight will be conditional upon the whims of a police force that clearly needs oversight and a Chief of Police who has declared that he will continue supporting the primary reason these shootings go unpunished?


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