Civil review focuses on use-of-force incidents involving the mentally ill and internal procedures

The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil investigation into whether the Portland police have routinely used excessive force to violate the civil rights of city residents, especially those with mental health problems.

The investigation was announced at a Wednesday morning press conference by Thomas Perez, the department's assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

• Click here to read the Department of Justice letter to Mayor Sam Adams.

'This will be an independent, fair, thorough, collaborative and inclusive investigation,' promised Perez, who said he expects it to last around 18 months.

Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese both attended the press conference at the downtown Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. They said they welcomed the investigation and would cooperate with it fully.

'We are committed to having the best police bureau in the country,' Adams said.

The Oregon U.S. attorney's office will also participate in the investigation. Oregon U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton promised at the press conference that it would be comprehensive.

Policing is more complex

Adams, former Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and community activists called for the federal investigation in the wake of the January 2010 police killing of Aaron Campbell, a suicidal African-American who was shot in the back during a standoff at a Northeast Portland apartment complex.

Perez said the justice department investigated the shooting and concluded no federal law had been violated.

However, because the shooting was part of a rash of violent police encounters with the mentally ill, the department concluded that a review of the police bureau's policies and practices was warranted.

The department is also investigating the state mental health system, in part to determine whether the civil rights of institutionalized people have been violated. Perez said the two investigations would overlap because police are encountering more people with mental health issues than in the past.

'Policing has become far more complex,' Perez said. 'In the past, [encountering the mentally ill] was the exception. Now it happens multiple times a day.'

The investigation will look at a range of police policies and practices, including training and day-to-day interaction between the police and Portlanders. Perez said he will keep the city informed of its findings along the way in case changes should be made before the investigation is completed.

Perez would not predict what the department will find. Similar investigations in other cities have resulted in a range of remedies and recommendations, including court orders, memorandums of understanding, and federal technical assistance.

Police union 'welcomes' probe

A number of community activists attended the press conference. African-American community leader Jo Ann Bowman expressed concern that racial minorities might be slighted if the focus was on those with mental health issues. Perez assured her that all elements of the community will be consulted.

The union representing rank-and-file police officers also welcomed the investigation, saying police have become the frontline in dealing with the mentally ill.

'The U.S. Department of Justice's investigation is not an indictment of Portland police officers, but rather an investigation into the systems that are at work in this difficult situation,' the Portland Police Association wrote in a statement about the investigation. 'We welcome that review, as we believe it will illustrate the reality of today's policing and will show the service, hard work and dedication of the men and women of the Portland Police Bureau.'

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