Beyond the Department of Justice Report: Cease Fire Now

Guest Column for The Oregonian, September 18, 2012

By Jenny Westberg, representing the Board of the Mental Health Association of Portland

We applaud the Department of Justice’s acknowledgement of the problem we have been talking about for years, but its recommendations to the Portland Police Bureau will only serve to extend that problem. They continue a long tradition of patchwork remedies and promised change. They repeat the City Hall mantra: blame the unfixable mental health system, blame the now-unfixable victim, add a little training, add a little policy, do anything but face the problem and make real change.

There is a way to end police brutality in Portland. Zero tolerance for killing a civilian. Kill a civilian and turn in your badge – regardless of the scenario, regardless of threat or perceived threat, regardless of your fears or prejudices against fellow Portlanders who happen to have a mental illness.

Zero tolerance is the only way to stop dangerous cops; it’s the only remedy to impunity.

Most Portland cops serve with compassion and valor. But all the training in the world won’t help those who will never learn. Zero harm is an unrealizable goal. But separating officers who kill civilians at least assures us nofuture harm will come from them: nothing short of zero tolerance will protect us from another Chris Humphreys or Kyle Nice.

Zero tolerance sets a high standard, but not an unmanageable one. It will not handcuff police, but force new thinking and greater reliance on non-lethal responses.  There will, unfortunately, be cases where an officer is unfairly penalized. But if we have learned anything from the past, it’s this: we cannot make exceptions. Inevitably they expand to accommodate all situations.

Should there be an exemption when killing is justified? According to our District Attorney, that’s always the case. What if the officer’s safety is at risk? According to police reports, that too is always the case.

Instead, to mitigate unfairness, we suggest in cases where the officer is not criminally prosecuted, they stay in city employ, fast-tracked for a meritorious civilian position, with no loss of pay, benefits or seniority.

We are living under threat of imminent harm. Besides the harm to the person with mental illness, their family and friends, and the city at large, cops have been harmed – some with permanent psychological scars. Cops have plenty of motivation to stop killing persons with mental illness. And they will – eventually.

But we who live with mental illness can no longer wait for “eventually.” We can no longer sit by and watch the body count rise. We don’t need promises, or best efforts, or court actions. We need an immediate cease-fire.

For ten years we’ve watched our friends die, while the state, county and city push out cosmetic non-solutions, and the usual suspects hem and haw about how to fix the problem. We hear fantastical proposals that often rest on the assumption that we have fewer constitutional rights. “Make it easier to lock them up!” “Force them to take medication!” “Build a new warehouse to put them in!” We get interminable what-if sessions that breed apathy and infighting.

We originally chose to direct our advocacy at police for two reasons. One, the mental health system (which has plenty of blood on its hands) didn’t kill our friends; cops did. Two, we believe cops are capable of understanding the problem and fixing it. They don’t shrink from outside scrutiny and work hard to get better.

We still believe they will be diligent in their application of the Department of Justice recommendations. But systemic change comes slowly. The system grinds, and perhaps ten years from now, we will no longer be under siege.

Slow remedies are unacceptable remedies.

We require nothing less than an immediate cease-fire, an end to unnecessary harm to persons with mental illness and other minorities.

We expect police – and future police commissioners – to embrace zero tolerance as an opportunity. We expect officers to recommit to the ideals of “protect and serve,” and remember why it was they became cops in the first place.