Portland cops and mentally ill: Now try it with the feds watching

Editorial from The Oregonian, September 14, 2012

Almost exactly six years after his death, James Chasse was again present in Portland last week.

You could say he’s never gone away.

This image shows police carrying James Chasse into the jail. The image was on display during a 2010 press conference.

This image shows police carrying James Chasse into the jail. The image was on display during a 2010 press conference.

Chasse, of course, was the man with a mental illness who was chased and taken down by Portland police on suspicion of urinating in public. He died soon afterward, with an autopsy revealing multiple broken ribs. The city ultimately paid his family $1.6 million.

He reappeared last week, not by name but by presence, in a U.S. Department of Justice report declaring, “Our investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe that PPB engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and in violation of federal law.”

Specifically, “Encounters between Portland Police Bureau officers and persons with mental illness too frequently result in a use of force when force is unnecessary or in the use of a higher level of force than necessary or appropriate, up to and including deadly force. We found instances that support a pattern of dangerous uses of force against persons who posed little or no threat and who could not, as a result of their mental illness, comply with officers’ commands.”

Of course, you could have reached the same conclusion just by following the city’s liability settlements.

The 42-page report repeatedly judges “The intrusion on the subject’s Fourth Amendment rights … is substantial,” with variations including “being shocked with an ECW (Taser) multiple times, in both probe and stun mode, and hit multiple times” or “being punched 7-10 times in the face” or “being shocked with an ECW four times without warning while experiencing a medical emergency.”

Including “a May 2011 incident in which an officer punched an unarmed subject at least seven times in the face when responding to a call to check on the man’s well-being.”

Who knew the Department of Justice could produce irony?

The report found a particular Portland police fondness for Tasers, reporting, “We found that PPB officers use electronic control weapons … in circumstances when ECW use is not justified or use ECWs multiple times when only a single use is justified in encounters with people with actual or perceived mental illness.” Moreover, at a police meeting to review use of force, “we observed general confusion amongst the officers in attendance regarding the appropriateness of ECW usage in several of the cases up for discussion.”

The City That Shocks.

Certainly, Portland police have a near-impossible job. “As one high-level officer told us,” reads the DOJ report, “over his career, encounters with people in crisis have gone from a couple of times a month to a couple of times a day.” Policemen didn’t sign up, and aren’t trained, to be mental health workers, and it’s not their fault that sieve-like state and local mental health systems drop so many problems onto the cops.

But as a former secretary of defense might have said, you deal with the job you have, not the job you wish you had.

Portland’s city and police leadership now insist they have a plan, that special police units will specialize in mental health, that they will institute policies to de-escalate situations and reduce use of force, and apply more supervision and review of performance. And if we’ve heard that before, this time it will be in a binding agreement with the feds, which can and will be enforced by a federal court.

You can ask the Columbia River whether that can change policy.

In its examination of the Portland Police Bureau, the Department of Justice report inevitably gets to the bureau’s convoluted and impermeable review system, which includes multiple elements and ends with labor arbitrators who tend to throw out penalties. The authors of the report offer a police review flow chart that looks like one of those outlines of how the entire U.S. health care system works and point out, “This process is so lengthy and attenuated … that the efficacy of corrective action is invariably undermined.”

As of now, says the U.S. Department of Justice, the Portland Police Bureau is not good at dealing with mental illness. It’s also not good at judging afterward how it did.

It may have been six years, but James Chasse is still likely to be with us for a while.