Portland police to reform dealings with mentally ill suspects

September 13, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • A police car in Portland, Ore. The Department of Justice and Portland Police have agreed to alter Portland Police Bureau policies, practices, training and supervision.
A police car in Portland, Ore. The Department of Justice and Portland Police… (Squid Vicious / Flickr )

Portland, Ore., will continue to revise its policies as part of an agreement with the federal government, which found a pattern of excessive force by police when dealing with mentally ill suspects, officials said Thursday.

The agreement, which comes after a more than year-long investigation, was announced at a news conference by city and federal officials in Portland. Officials praised the agreement, which calls for better training and oversight.

According to the Justice Department, the Portland Police Bureau “engaged in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness.” During the Last three years, police have used deadly force 12 times, 10 of which, involved mentally ill suspects. In addition, the city has paid about $6 million in the last 20 years to settle suits alleging police misconduct, according to the findings.

“While most uses of force were lawful, there is reasonable cause to believe that PPB is engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force against people with mental illness, or those perceived to have mental illness,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez said at the news conference. Encounters between police and those with mental illness “too frequently result in a use of force, or in a higher level of force than necessary."

“We further found that, when dealing with people with mental illness, PPB officers use electronic control weapons, or Tasers, in circumstances where the use of Tasers was not justified, or deploy them more times than necessary."

Investigators found that when police arrested people with mental illness for low-level offenses, "there is a pattern or practice of using more force than necessary in these circumstances,” he said.

Perez praised Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Michael Reese for cooperating with the department’s investigation, which began June 8, 2011,  and he noted that Portland’s problems are similar to those faced elsewhere.

“Police work has transformed dramatically in recent years,” with encounters with those with mental illness dramatically increasing, Perez said.

“Communities across the United States are wrestling with how to deliver police services to people with mental illness," he said. "We have seen and are working on these issues in other communities and believe that the work we do here in Portland will serve as an important guidepost for communities facing similar challenges.”

Adams and Reese said they agreed that the city needed to do better and that police have begun making changes that include new training and working more closely with social service agencies.

"We all agree this bureau and this community can improve the way we serve Portland's vulnerable population," Reese told reporters, according to The Oregonian newspaper.

In 2010, city officials, including former police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and  Adams, asked the Justice Department to conduct a full review of the Police Bureau after the shooting of Aaron Campbell, 25, an unarmed black man who had learned that his brother died earlier that day. Campbell, who had threatened to kill himself, left his apartment with his hands behind his head but was shot by a police sniper.

Community leaders had pressed for the federal investigation.

Other high-profile cases include: James P. Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who died in police custody, and  homeless veteran Thomas Higginbotham, who was shot 10 times after he emerged from a Portland car wash with a knife.


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