Last month the Department of Justice released a report with findings that Portland Police Bureau had a "pattern or practice" of using excessive force against people with mental illness. Now, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese has unveiled draft policy changes on police use of force. The policies are posted on the bureau's website along with a space for comments. But advocates say they fall far short of resolving problems identified last month in a federal Department of Justice report.
The DOJ report on Portland Police Bureau found a pattern and practice of excessive force against people with mental illness. That report also raised concerns about the tense relationship between police and Portland's communities of color.
Jo Ann Hardesty, of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, says policy changes should not be decided before the City of Portland and the Department of Justice sign a Letter of Agreement. The Letter of Agreement was scheduled for completion on Oct. 12, but has been delayed because the city and federal attorneys have not yet reached an agreement on policy changes.
In Hardesty's view, Reese's move is simply an attempt to avoid making fundamental changes by making minimal tweaks to the policies.
"He's putting the cart before the horse," she said. "The Department of Justice report made a lot of recommendations. It's not just one part of the police bureau that is broken; it's broken throughout. So I think it's a horrible decision to put out these policy changes with no community involvement."
Hardesty said that a key recommendation in the report was that the community should be closely involved with making change in the police bureau. And she said she has written to Portland City Commissioners urging them to avoid changing the policies before the DOJ spells out what needs to be done to remedy the problems.
"I hope city council won't allow this to happen before the community has seen the Letter of Agreement and understands what the DOJ has mandated," she said. "This needs to be a transparent process."
The three draft policies address: taser use; use of force; and deadly force. To comment, you must read through the policies and click on the comment link at the bottom of the page.
Several recommendations in the DOJ report are not included in the policy changes.
The draft taser policy includes new wording that says officers should consider a person's mental health before using the taser, and also consider other strategies if two cycles are ineffective. It also says that tasers should not be deployed against people who are running away from police, unless they present an immediate threat.
DOJ officials had called for a limit on the number of times a taser can be deployed against a person, but that is not in the draft.
The draft use of force policy includes new language that says officers must recognize that people with mental illnesses may need a specialized response. As in previous policies, it states officers should resolve situations using the least amount of force necessary, a standard stricter than federal law. It also says officers should describe their efforts to de-escalate situations, and to justify any use of force.
The deadly force draft policy includes a new, on-scene interview, where officers who kill someone must give investigators an overview of what happened, after they've had time to contact an attorney or union representative. The police contract allows officers 48 hours before they are questioned in a formal interview. Under the draft policy, an internal affairs officer would be present at the interview or view it remotely.
What Reese's proposed deadly force policy does not do is get rid of the 48-hour rule, one of the DOJ recommendations.
Reese already has decided to push forward with a plan to create a specialized crisis intervention team, within the bureau— a key recommendation in the DOJ report. From 1995 to 2007, the bureau deployed a specialized crisis intervention team, but Chief Tom Potter disbanded it after James Chasse died in police custody. Instead, all police officers were required to attend 40 hours of crisis intervention training. Under the chief's new plan that requirement would be retained but a specialized crisis intervention team would be available around the clock.
Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland said the problem in the past was that crisis team officers were rarely available when most needed. And he said a small team of specialized officers won't be able to handle every situation dealing with a mentally ill person, because police deal with mentally ill and addicted people every day, all day.
Renaud says that all of the people shot by police since Chasse's death were suffering from some kinds of mental illness or addiction. And he remains convinced that all police officers need to be skilled in crisis intervention.
"The majority of people arrested – maybe 70 – 80 percent is dealing with active mental illness or addictions," he said. "What we've done is dismantle the community mental health system, and those people now flow, without much intervention into our criminal justice system. Police officers are caught in the middle and they resent it. Our job is to make sure police officers have the tools to do their job."
"We believe all officers should be trained. All officers should be held accountable to the same standards. If they can't be trained then they shouldn't be police officers."
Jo Ann Hardesty said the figures are incomplete. Police often stop and search people – in particular youth of color –but do not record the stops, because they are seen as informal, "walk and talks."
"The DOJ said they have to record them because they inhibit people's liberty and have the same impact as formal stops," she said. "But I haven't seen anything from the chief on how they are going to do that."
In addition, Hardesty said, the crisis team should not be made up of just any officer; it should be the officers who are best suited psychologically for the work.
"We don't even have a psychological profile of the best person to supervise that unit," she said. "It can't just be business as usual."