Get mayoral candidates on record about police accountability

This editorial opinion is by Jenny Westberg and represents the Mental Health Association of Portland.

The only relevant issue in the 2012 mayoral campaign is police accountability.

Other issues can wait. Jobs and schools and bike paths are only useful if we’re alive to enjoy them. Only one issue is life-and-death: police officers who shoot citizens and are never held to account.

There was a slight hiccup of accountability in November 2010, when Ronald Frashour was fired for shooting an unarmed man, Aaron Campbell, in the back the previous January. Now that brief almost-consequence has been nullified by state arbitrators. Mayor Sam Adams and Chief Mike Reese have tut-tutted about the decision, while asserting they are helpless to change it. Frashour will almost certainly be reinstated, if only to an empty desk.

Firing an officer, even temporarily, was unique; Campbell’s death was not. Less than two months later, Jack Dale Collins was shot and killed by police. Officers faced no discipline. Several weeks passed; then police shot and killed Keaton Otis. No discipline. Thomas Higginbotham, Craig Boehler, Darryel Dwayne Ferguson, Marc Lagozzino — all shot that same year, to the resounding echo of nothing. In 2011 and 2012 Portland area police went on to shoot Anthony McDowell, William Monroe, Brad Morgan and Larry McKinney. In no case thus far have officers been held accountable.

All these individuals — and, according to recent information, the latest victim, Jonah Potter — had one commonality: Each was in acute mental illness or addiction crisis.

There is only one relevant question for the candidates for mayor: As police commissioner, what will you do with Ronald Frashour? Or put broadly: As mayor, how will you reflect Portland’s values when police officers harm innocent persons?

Importantly, most of the people shot by police in recent years were innocent; they were not engaged in crime. They were sick, not sinners — and not criminals. Often they are painted as such by police apologists, and each time it’s a shameful exercise that magnifies our grief. We’re invited to imagine the crimes Brad Morgan might have committed if not shot by a police officer — but he committed no crime. We hear James Chasse urinated against a tree and therefore deserved a brutal, lethal beating by trained and trusted officers — but he was an innocent man. We’re asked to believe Officer Jason Walters could not retreat and was forced to shoot a dazed, shuffling Jack Collins for holding the knife he used to cut his own throat — Collins needed a paramedic, not bullets.

Elected and appointed officials are responsible for holding police accountable, but the news media also have a responsibility, to hold those elected — and those who aspire to be elected — accountable. We expect members of the Fourth Estate to cut through the endless debates on potholes and magical job creation, and demand candidates provide strategies to resolve the seemingly impossible disconnect between our police officers and the citizens in their crosshairs.

Unasked, the three main mayoral candidates remain uncommitted, staking no position. Unless these candidates present clear, unequivocal answers, we are in for the usual: Routine harm to citizens, routine civil suits with resulting multi-million dollar awards, and routine, continuing mistrust of police.

Both elected and appointed officials have neglected their responsibility to hold police accountable, and our news media have failed in their duty to hold those officials answerable. We need the press to sift through the verbiage regarding composting and “clown-houses,” and get officials on record with meaningful answers to real questions.

In 2010, as we mourned Aaron Campbell, Jesse Jackson visited Portland, and before addressing the congregation at Maranatha Church in NE Portland, he met privately with local ministers. Jackson said he’d spent time in many cities: in Los Angeles, where community leaders have given up solving homelessness; in Washington, D.C., where a great public school education is beyond reach; in Houston, where gang violence is an accepted fact of life. He appreciated Portland, he said, because we maintain the belief that we can solve hard problems; pride, power and prejudice have not destroyed our ability to learn and trust. Not yet.

It’s our responsibility to keep hope alive — hope that our children won’t run from police in fear; that persons with mental illnesses won’t be shot when they ask for help; that routine police contact isn’t a death sentence.

Why is this so important, now, today? For persons with mental illness, it’s a question of life or death. But it’s not just we people with mental and addiction illnesses. Anyone who calls the police in crisis is at risk, and it could be you next, or someone you love.

For mayoral candidates, it’s time to step up and answer the one question that matters: Will you hold police officers accountable for their lethal actions?