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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Five Things to Know From the Feds' Investigation of the Portland Police

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Thu, Sep 13, 2012 at 3:14 PM

Federal report finds that police over-used Tasers in interactions with people with mental illness
  • Federal report finds that police over-used Tasers in interactions with people with mental illness
This morning, the feds released the results of their massive 14-month investigation into the Portland Police's treatment of people with mental illness. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!

Five big takeaways. This is a huge deal, so pay attention:

1. Is there a major problem with the way Portland police deal with people who are mentally ill? YES. We haven't been imagining things. At the request of Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, federal Department of Justice investigators looked over every single use of force among the police in the past few years. There was a clear pattern: Officers routinely used excessive force against people with mental illness. This is an institutional problem—while "bad apple" officers contribute to the problems, the report doesn't "point fingers" at specific officers because, as US Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said this morning, "This is about the systematic issues." For example: The police less-lethal-weapons trainers were using the controversial beanbagging of a 12-year-old girl as an good example of use-of-force. The investigation basically sums that up as "FAIL." The report also reveals that cops routinely refer to mentally ill people as "mentals"—including during a roll call presentation attended by investigators. "We recommend that PPB immediately stop using this term," the report helpfully suggests.

2. Police definitely over-used Tasers. As numerous advocates have pointed out over the years, the feds found that Portland police officers used Tasers when they didn't need to and that they fired Tasers multiple times into people when only a single shot was justified. One case called out in the report—a use of force that was actually approved by supervisors—was an August 2010 Tasering of an unarmed, naked man who, it turned out, was experiencing a diabetic emergency. The report says it's time for the bureau to do what several other reports have recommended and make clear that exactly when and how many times officers may use Tasers on someone.

3. Cops are the new mental health providers. Behind this report is a big, sad picture of a broken mental health system that forces people with mental illness into situations with police to begin with. In a perfect world (ahem, one without Ronald Reagan), people in mental crisis would be talking with doctors and counselors, not regularly facing off with police. But as Assistant AG Perez noted this morning: "In communities across the country, the largest mental health facility is the jail. That's wrong." Amen to that. Mayor Sam Adams also summed up the impact of the issue: "Our anemic mental health system makes the already tough job of being a police officer even tougher. But we get a failing grade for dealing with the growing number of Portlanders with mental health issues."

4. Mayor Adams and Chief Reese are doing a good job making changes. The feds say that often local mayors and police forces are hostile to their findings and recommendations, but today's release of the report—damning as it was—felt like, as one reporter put it, a kumbaya-fest. The feds say the city has been super quick filling their records requests, opening their books, and accepting their ideas. From here, the feds and the city will sign a legally-binding agreement to make specific, concrete changes to the police force. For example: Reworking the police's "self-defeating accountability system" to allow citizens an actual voice in use-of-force cases. The police's Kafka-like flow chart for their use-of-force accountability process clearly shows how the process is unacceptably obtuse. Look at this hilarious/terrible thing:

LOL
  • LOL

5. Oh, BTW, there's also some racial tensions in Portland. This investigation is unique in the country because it looked just at interactions with people with mental illness. A lot of cities, like New Orleans and LA, have had broader investigations that look at all kinds of civil rights violations, like racial bias. By focusing just on mental health issues, this investigation dug deep into the details and has a slew of solid recommendations, but the downside is it misses any look at police and racial issues. From the investigation's hundreds of interviews with community members, says Assistant AG Perez, "It is impossible to ignore the tension between Portland police and certain communities of color. We have heard consistent and serious concerns from people in African American communities that felt they were subjected to traffic stops and use-of-force based on race."

If you want to examine all the issues for yourself, read the DOJ's 42-page letter summarizing the report findings here. It's definitely a more worthwhile read than any of the ten best-selling fiction titles in America.

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