Critics and defenders of Portland police once again are fiercely debating whether recent officer-involved shootings are due to the insensitivity or wrongful actions of police, or whether they are simply the logical but unfortunate result of officers employing lethal force when they have no other alternative.
Those two points of view are among many advanced in the wake of several shootings in recent months, but this particular debate misses the point. The critical question isn't whether Portland police are too quick to pull the trigger in confrontations with people who often turn out to be mentally ill. Instead, Portlanders ought to be asking themselves whether the current situation - eight officer-involved shootings in a little more than 12 months - is acceptable for their community.
When viewed in that light, we believe the clear answer is no. No one - police nor citizens - benefits from the use of potentially lethal force against people who may not be fully responsible for their actions. Lives are lost. Families are left grieving. And the officers involved must deal with deep emotional scars that most of us cannot understand.
Look for the real causes
Rather than focusing intently on the matter of who is at fault in these shootings, the community ought to more closely examine the whys and the hows. What are the underlying conditions that eventually lead to such confrontations, which in many cases have involved mentally ill or homeless people? Obviously, a large part of the problem is the tattering of Portland's social safety net and the community's ongoing inability to deal with the mentally ill.
As Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk observes, a lack of resources to help the mentally ill makes it more likely that some people will find themselves in a face-off with police. Those officers increasingly have become the mental-health providers of last resort. When a mentally ill person is going without treatment and begins acting out, officers are expected to resolve the problems.
When a person suffering from mental illness becomes violent, police officers are placed in a precarious situation. But that doesn't mean lethal force is a required or reasonable response.
We believe that Portland police should continue to improve their training, their procedures and, in some cases, their attitudes when it comes to responding to incidents involving the mentally ill. Portland officials should examine whether there are other cities doing a better job in such situations, and then study and implement their methods and training programs. They may find evidence that it's better to team officers, when possible, with mental-health professionals when the officers are sent out on mental-health-related calls.
Don't just talk about it
However, a better trained police force still doesn't address the larger problem - one that has dogged Portland for years. We recall that former Mayor Tom Potter convened a regional task force five years ago to consider how the metropolitan area could provide better mental health services. After months of meetings, the process produced few concrete recommendations.
In Portland, the formation of a task force is frequently the immediate response to a difficult issue - but more often than not the product is just more handwringing and talk, not action. Yet, after every tragic incident involving police, the community experiences frustration, a sense of loss and a feeling that things must be different in the future.
The starting point for such change, however, isn't assessing blame for shootings - as important as it is to hold people accountable. Rather, the community must first agree, as Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese already have said, that the status quo is unacceptable. Then, citizens must channel their frustration into requiring and supporting more effective ways - and more resources - to address the deeper conditions that produce these tragic shootings.