NAMI Multnomah’s Testimony to Judge Simon in DOJ v City of Portland

NAMI Multnomah blue and gold logoDear Judge Simon,

NAMI Multnomah members are concerned that the current Department of Justice Agreement with the City of Portland and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) leaves a great deal of wiggle room for what could culminate in another disastrous Use of Excess Force event. We believe that there are several loopholes that need to be addressed to further assure there is less chance of confrontation with someone living with mental illness. We understand there have been changes that try to address some of these issues. However, they do not go far enough to protect people when they are in a mental health crisis and need the assistance of police officers.

Use of excess force is a primary concern. This leads to our fear of calling the police even when appropriate police intervention could be very helpful, because some of us have had very bad experiences when we have sought police help on suicide calls or trying to get a loved one transported to a mental health facility. There are loopholes where officers can step over the boundaries of their training and in certain situations could lead to excess use of force, which could maim or kill the individual. Our experience has been that when one of these incidents happens the officers are always held harmless. Even when they are fired, the police union has invoked the arbitration process, which in EVERY case results in an overturning of the sanction.

We are also concerned that officers who have used excess use of force in the past are still on the street and could be the one to respond to our call for help. Worse, some of those officers are now in a supervisory capacity, and could provide catastrophic orders to their subordinates. We have no assurance that these officers have changed their behavior patterns, especially since they were not sanctioned and especially when faced with a stressful situation in which, as psychological studies clearly prove, old habits are the response of first resort. We believe, for example, that there is one such officer who is working on the Mobile Crisis Prevention Team now. With their training to use force to control difficult situations and their established habit patterns of overuse of force, we greatly fear that these officers might decide the only way to take control of the situation is by escalation.

The County’s Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center was promoted as a drop-off mental health facility where officers could take people in mental health crisis, but it is not. A person has to be evaluated before he or she can be received at this mental health facility. As it stands now, officers have to take people to local hospital emergency rooms, which are extremely busy whose triage processes, understandably give priority to bodily trauma over mental health crisis. The only time officers should be sending people to the hospital is if there has been a physical confrontation with the police where the person has been hurt, or the person may have injuries sustained due to their crisis situation, or they have other physical issues that require going to a hospital emergency room; otherwise there should be an established location for taking people when they are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Turning from our concerns with police behavior, we believe that there needs to be a way to develop the collection of data so as to track how things are functioning with the PPB operations so as to curtail the excess use of force. This would be to everyone’s benefit. We find that the proposed Agreement is vague in this regard, not specifying what types of measures need to be collected and how they are to be used. While a full set of measures and analyses is clearly beyond the scope of the Agreement, we wish to see a clearer statement of the orientation, purposes, and scope of such information processing. We support the idea of a Quality Assurance program that would track not only actual contact or death of an individual, but also “near misses” of use of force, where things might have gone wrong, but fortunately did not. This would enable the establishment of evidence-based police procedures that demonstrably reduced the likelihood of bad outcomes. We believe that such a tool would further educate and train officers on use of force and understanding how mental illness crisis enters into the picture of a call they may be involved in.

Respectfully submitted,

Terri Walker, President
Sylvia Zingeser, Board Member and Advocate

Dear Judge Simon,

My name is Sylvia Zingeser. I am a NAMI Multnomah family member (National Alliance on Mental Illness). What I am about to share with you happened November 8, 2003. I believe personal stories have merit in showing why the Fairness Hearing is critical for many community members.

My youngest son is mentally ill. I became involved in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) Advisory board as a result of my placing a call to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) for help, because my son had called me to tell me he was “done” with living. He was committing suicide as he spoke to me on the phone. He has a heart condition and he had overdosed on his Digoxin. At the time I was in Southern California taking care of another relative who had just had surgery. It was the first time I had left Portland since my son had become so mentally ill.

I did not expect the police to engage in a battle with my son. When they arrived one officer tried to wake my son by hitting the bottom of his boot with a standard police flash light that also serves as club. He did not move. The officers then tried to wake my son up with a sternum rub; there were three officers involved, two men and one woman. They were finally able to arouse him and get him to stand up. He weaved so two officers tried to stabilize him by putting their hands on his elbows to keep him from possibly falling, he jerked his arms back. (Mentally ill people in crisis do not hear commands. They do not want to be touched). All three officers jumped my son to take him down and the battle was on, in a “pig pile” as stated a few days later by their commander to me. One officer decided the best way to subdue him was to slug him in the eye. (My son received a hematoma near the brain per my conversation with the ER doctor at Legacy Emanuel Hospital). He was a wild mess when he arrived at the emergency room and nearly took out a staff member. The doctor was furious with the police and stated to me that “this is what they do every time, drop the patient off here for us to take care of and leave.” My son was monitored for 24 hours plus to make sure there was no further problems with the hematoma and that the Digoxin was safely clearing before they transferred him to a local psychiatric unit in Portland. His attending psychiatrist was furious, so was I. I do have pictures of my son’s blackened eye.

I flew back to Portland three days later and went directly to Portland Adventist Hospital. My son had been admitted to their psychiatric unit. He was still in lockdown, but stabilized. He wanted a few toiletries and asked if the nurse would get his billfold so he could send our family friend to buy a few things he needed that was not supplied by the hospital. The nurse allowed him out of lockdown to enter the nurse’s station where they kept patients personal belongings. I and our friend also were present when the nurse handed my son his billfold. My son opened his billfold. He said he had $400.00 cash stashed from his disability check he had cashed five days before. We were living with our friend at the time so I know from checking with our friend that my son had not left the house that day. What my son found was a court summons for assaulting the officer who slugged him in the eye. The $400.00 was gone. We had no way of proving that the officer had lifted the cash. We believe that is what probably happened. We cannot prove it.

I contacted the mayor’s office, was told by the man answering the phone (he sounded quite elderly), “That’s what happens when you don’t listen to the police”. I called the DA’s office, was referred to the city auditor’s office… got nowhere with any of my calls. I decided to go to Northeast Precinct to talk with PPB commander. I met with Commander Smith, who is now retired from the PPB.

My family situation is unusual, because my ex-husband (my son’s father) had been a PPB officer for nineteen plus years, five-six months shy of twenty years. About eleven years before my son’s mental illness became obvious his father tried to commit suicide by placing his off-duty gun (38 Special) underneath his chin and firing the gun. He lived, but he had basically done a prefrontal lobotomy on himself. He had years of stress building up from the duties as an officer. I saw a complete personality change in him from the time he became an officer to the time we had separated and divorced. He was alcoholic and depressed and was still employed when he attempted suicide. He died about five years later of severe alcohol disease.

My son had hunted and fished with police officers and their sons while he was growing up. He was a “daddy’s boy”, he loved his dad, he loved doing things with his dad. He was twenty-one when his father had the failed suicide attempt. It broke our hearts, especially my son’s. You can imagine what this must have been like for my son when he was slugged by a PPB officer during his suicide attempt.

After this incident I called NAMI Multnomah to ask what I could do to stop the PPB from beating up mentally ill people when they were in crisis. I was strongly encouraged by John Holmes, Executive Director, at that time, to attend the CIT meetings, which I have done for ten years. I have witnessed through the media the deaths by several PPB officers during what turned out to be people in mental health crisis, most notably James Chasse and Aaron Campbell. As these people died at the hand of the PPB officers involved, I became aware that there was not real way of measuring these outcomes or the near misses.

I am a retired medical technologist. The work I do is followed closely by a Quality Assurance program (QA). I have discovered there is no such program for police officers anywhere. Having served on the CIT Advisory Board I have been convinced that a QA program could be developed that would standardize takedowns, near misses and excessive use of force as well as a citizen death by an officer while trying to contain the individual or the pursuit of the individual. I have been told that it is impossible to measure what an officer does on the street. I do not buy that. There are ways at looking how officers work on the street, how they write their reports, where data can be collected and used as a measure of how their system is working for them or not. Training could be better developed. Hiring the right people who would be able to work as community police officers, but unfortunately be able to respond to terrorist situations.

I do not believe the Department of Justice Agreement covers the collection of data in a meaningful way or how to use the data adequately. Until we have such a program I believe there will be lots of bumbling around and collecting data willy-nilly. The data must be standardized and collected for near misses, use of force and by what type of force, hospitalizations as result of a takedown, and death in custody. There are lot of things that could be measured that could capture problems with training and equipment. Meanwhile, my fear is there will be more mentally ill people either maimed or killed in the name of “trying to help the person out.”

My son has been very ill for a long time. He has had ups and downs with his mental illness, in and out of the hospital from time to time, and through all this he has managed to stay engaged with his own two sons in a meaningful way. They are now in college and doing well. We keep our fingers crossed as there is a lot of mental illness in my family. My son’s diagnosis is bi-polar, dual diagnosis (alcohol, not drugs) with schizoaffective disorder. We never know when the medications will quit working. He has been pretty good at taking his medications. He does not handle stress well though.

Our family lives with not knowing whether we will need to call the police again for assistance and if we do, how will that turn out? What happens if my son cannot follow commands? It is important to us that police get the right kind of training that not only protects the officers, but the citizens they come in contact with.

My son has said to me several times, “A person is innocent until proven guilty. Not guilty until proven innocent.” He says the police need to understand this basic Constitutional right. Given his experience with the police, that is a remarkably insightful statement.

Sylvia Zingeser

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