This Week in the Mercury


Friday, November 15, 2013

Cops Flagging Increased Use of Force Against "Transients," Mentally Ill for Further Review

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Fri, Nov 15, 2013 at 1:14 PM

The most recent quarterly report from the police bureau on how its officers use force—and against whom—offers some cause for concern in the wake of news last week that the city and Portland Police Association had found relative peace over federal reforms.

For reasons still unknown, and due to be put under closer scrutiny over the next several months, Portland officers have seen a significant and steady increase in force incidents involving people identified as transient or mentally ill throughout 2013. The latest report, covering the three-month period between July 1 and September 30, lists 112 people between both categories—up from 93 during the quarter before and 76 during the first three months of 2013.

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The most recent increase would have come during the city's crackdown on homeless campers. And it's got bureau number-crunchers concerned enough to take a look and try to figure out if this is a "seasonal" issue, under the premise that summer months are when Portland sees more homeless visitors and, thus, cops have more interactions with them in general. Or if it's something else. (The most recent report actually shows a decrease in overall reported incidents of force between this summer and last summer.)

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The force reports, which started this year, are part of the bureau's efforts to get right with the US Department of Justice over accusations Portland cops unconstitutionally use excessive force against people with mental illness and are too quick, in general, to escalate force incidents and use Tasers.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch flagged the latest report for me after noticing the increase described above. But Handelman also noticed another interesting fluctuation: an increase, over the past three months, of instances when an officer had to cycle a Taser against someone more than twice. Policy changes are supposed to limit the circumstances in which officers are allowed to use multiple (50,000-volt) Taser cycles.

Handelman also noticed something else that's now been missing from all but the first force report: demographic data. The first report found that more than a third of all people involved in force incidents earlier this year were listed as African American and that white men made up less than half of the number.

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The disproportionate number fits a pattern for police activity that's pretty well-established and has already been cause for soul-searching. Has that number gotten worse in the past three months? We don't know because the bureau has stopped including that information, despite Handelman's persistent entreaties.

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