Portland police and another tragic death

We don't need this kind of "help."  (Photo:  jaspoid-one/Flickr.com)

We don't need this kind of "help." (Photo: jaspoid-one/Flickr.com)

By Jenny Westberg, Guest Columnist, The Oregonian, Feb. 8, 2012

In its Feb. 1 apologia for officers of the Portland Police Bureau, The Oregonian slaps a thick coat of whitewash on yet another tragic death (Editorial, “A no-win situation for police”).

Brad Morgan called for help and instead got fear and force. He died Jan. 25 of a single gunshot, fired at a distance by Portland Police Officer David Scott or Sgt. John Holbrook (we do not yet know which).  Morgan was just 21 years old when he died.

Since 1980, at least 220 people have been shot, shot at, or killed by Portland-area police.  Most, like me, had a mental illness. If this happened in any other group in society, there would be rioting in the streets.  But evidently we are forgettable, and our deaths, one after another after another, forgotten.

The Oregonian makes this simplistic appraisal:

“What we know about suicides is that they can be prevented, but people have to act fast….Had the officers not engaged with Morgan, they could have been criticized for sitting back and doing nothing while he killed himself.”

Here’s the reality: Had the officers not engaged with Morgan, he might have had a chance.

In a smarter, more compassionate city, Morgan might have been hospitalized.  He might have recovered.  He might have lived a long and worthwhile life.   Most poignantly, he might have experienced a peaceful mind,  perhaps even joy.

Or not.  We will never know.  His life was ended, all possibilities removed, all hope of recovery gone.

Again: “Had the officers not engaged with Morgan, they could have been criticized…”

Is being criticized really so fearsome?  We won’t know that either, because instead of risking it, officers chose to shoot.

And again:  “Had the officers not engaged with Morgan…[he might have] killed himself.”

But he was killed, by police. He’s now equally as dead as he would have been had he killed himself.  So we’re left with this question:  When a person is contemplating suicide, why is it somehow preferable he die by police bullet than by his own hand?

Either way his life ends forever. But one way — death by police — is guaranteed to end in irrevocable tragedy. The other way — police officers not lethally “engaging,” not leaping to “act fast,” and certainly not acting on the ridiculous notion that you protect a person’s life, or cure his suicidality, by killing him — allows the possibility of life and the chance of getting well.

In every one of these cases, the officers say they felt threatened. Yet suicidal people rarely harm anyone but themselves. Why the perceived threat?

One reason may be that people with mental illness are quite aware of what’s going on. We have watched and taken note over the past several years as police devolved into willing agents of our darkest hour.   In Portland, for suicidal persons, police are now as dangerous as keeping a loaded firearm.

For many of us, suicidal thoughts are relentless and compelling, subsiding only to return again in a terrifyingly predictable cycle with no visible end. Treatment works for some, not all. The Oregonian editors may have their theories, but here is what I know: When a period of despair passes, even for a while, I’m glad to be there to experience it — and lately, I’m also glad police were not there, adding firepower to unreasoned impulse, taking a bad decision and making it my last.

To say, “That person wanted to be shot, so police had no other choice. It was suicide by cop,” devalues our lives, trivializes our pain and guarantees more killings. Let’s call it what it is: These deaths are homicides by cop.

It is not a crime to be sad, fearful, depressed or even suicidal. It is not a crime to be crazy. But we are being executed for our craziness — no trial, no judge, no jury, just immediate capital punishment.

The first steps to change belong to the mayor, who in Portland typically serves as police commissioner. Here’s what a future mayor should sound like:

“Our police are not a backstop for ineffective, financially starved county and state programs for mental and addictions health. My administration will hold politicians, bureaucrats and agencies accountable.

“I will apply political pressure to counties to provide the mental and addiction health services they’re responsible for and are paid to provide. This will begin to reduce the criminalization of mental illness and enable us to recoup its costs to our city.

“I will make getting new and more money for safety net services my top legislative priority.

“I will reduce contact between persons with active mental illness or addiction and the police by directing 9-1-1 operators to divert mental health and suicide calls away from armed police response. These calls will go the county crisis line or medical transport to a hospital or clinic. However, since we cannot entirely eliminate contact between officers and persons with mental illness, I will continue a robust program of training for patrol officers in all aspects of crisis management.

“And I will hold both patrol officers and senior police staff accountable for harming innocent persons who reach out for help.”

We may someday have a mayor who talks like that.

For now, we need police who will act sanely and rationally. It should not have to be said, but killing us for having suicidal impulses is not rational, it’s not sane, it’s not even close — and it has to stop. We insist on our right not to be shot by police before we have a chance to find recovery.

Jenny Westberg is a member of the board of the Mental Health Association of Portland.