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Police plan changes in wake of federal use-of-force report

Portland police plan to make several changes suggested in a 42-page federal Department of Justice report released Thursday that criticized the bureau of its use of force against people with mental illness.

Police Chief Michael Reese and Mayor Sam Adams both said the bureau would continue to work with mental health service providers through its Mobile Crisis Unit to improve officers’ interaction with people in dangerous situations.

Click here to read the 42-page federal report on the Portland Police Bureau's use of force against people with mental illnesses.

Adams said the bureau also would continue its training to reduce confrontations with mentally ill people. In addition, the city will set up a mental health desk at the city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications staffed by trained dispatchers to ensure that calls are properly dispatched. The bureau also will direct suicide prevention/mental health calls to the County Crisis Call Center or Lines for Life when police response is not appropriate.

Adams said the city also agreed to lead efforts to increase community mental health treatment options, such as through the establishment of a 24-hour secure drop-off and walk-in center that will provide police officers more options when assisting persons experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Without defensiveness or finger pointing, we all need to absorb the seriousness of this critique and the urgent need for change,” Adams said after Thursday morning’s press conference on the federal report. “We all need to take our portion of the responsibility to improve the situation.

“We will improve and we will begin to do it quickly.”

Reese agreed, saying his bureau would use the federal report as a guideline for “additional enhancements that we believe are valuable ways to ensure that our use of force meets the community's expectations.”

“We all agree that we as a police department and as a community can do better,” Reese said. “I am looking forward to a collaborative relationship with the Department of Justice and our social service partners as we make improvements that provide officers and our community more options and resources to effectively help people who are in a mental health crisis.”

A final agreement

Federal investigators outlined Thursday morning the Portland Police Bureau’s shortcomings in dealing with people in mental health crisis. The report on the bureau’s use of force was the culmination of an investigation that began June 8, 2011, that focused on whether officers engage in unconstitutional or unlawful policing through the use of excessive force, especially when confronted by people with mental illnesses.

The investigation by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon found that most uses of force by Portland officers was lawful and reasonable. It also found reasonable cause to believe that the bureau “engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, in certain contexts.”

According to the report, the justice department found that police officers often use excessive force against persons with mental illness, sometimes relying on Tasers “in circumstances when such force is not justified,” or, using “a higher degree of force than justified for low-level offenses.”

City and federal officials reached an agreement that requires the police bureau to:

• Alter its use of force policies to ensure that officers have necessary guidance when encountering someone with mental illness or perceived to have mental illness.

• Increase crisis intervention training for officers and others helping police in cases involving people with mental illness.

• Expedite investigations of misconduct complaints against police.

• Establish a public group to ensure increased community oversight of reforms.

A final agreement on the policies and changes is expected to be in place by Oct. 12.

No easy outcomes

Adams and City Commissioner Dan Saltzman sought the federal investigation nearly two years ago after a string of deadly confrontations between police and several people who were in a mental health crisis. During the past few years, the city has paid tens of thousands of dollars to settle state and federal lawsuits against officers involved in those kinds of confrontations.

Federal investigators acknowledged that the city was wrestling with budget cuts and a frayed mental health service system that also has been hard-hit by a sagging economy.

Reese said that last year, the bureau’s 980 sworn officers had about 400,000 contacts with people across the city, and “many of these were the result of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.” The bureau has seen a dramatic shift in the past decade from “responding to criminal issues to responding to social disorder,” Reese said.

“The situations we are talking about today are complex and difficult for officers to resolve,” he said. “There are no easy answers or guaranteed outcomes. I strongly agree that this bureau and our community can improve the way we serve and protect Portland’s most vulnerable populations.”