The Thin Blue Line Around ‘Protect And Defend’

From OPB News, December 21, 2009

Recently, a video of Portland police officer Chris Humphreys arresting a 12-year-old girl by shooting her with a bean bag, highlighted a disconnect between members of the community and police officers.

Kathleen Ris: “In my opinion, there’s obviously something that needs to change with that officer and he should be on administrative leave.”

Mark White: “We saw Chris Humphries do precisely what needed to be done. It was a reasonable response…”

The time most people find themselves dealing with a police officer is during a traffic stop. If you have your license and insurance, it’s basically a question of whether you can schmooze out of a ticket.

For most people, it doesn’t feel like a life or death situation. But for an officer, says retired Portland Policeman Mark White, it’s different.

Mark White: “In the back of your mind, if you can’t see what’s going on in of the car, which is often the case, especially at night, you can’t see who you’re stopping. You have to be on alert. You have to have somewhat of a combat mentality, initially. Once you’ve made that initial contact and you’re comfortable this person doesn’t present a threat to you. Then the dymanics change at that point.”

White starts up one of the half dozen motorbikes in his garage. He’s got time to tinker with them now he’s retired after 29-years on the force.

During that time, he never shot anybody. In fact, he says, most cops aren’t interested in getting into a fight.

Mark White: “There’s too much liability now. There’s too much scrutiny on use of force. and I think that they screen for people that are more likely to negotiate, which is good. You’re going to find an officer here and there, maybe having a bad day. Maybe he has had previous contact with somebody, his patience is running thin. He’s not going to spend a half hour negotiating with somebody. He could have another 10 calls stacked upon his MDC, he’s going to take action.”

Each officer gets an area in which they’re expected to clear the calls.

Of course if there’s a 9-1-1 call for a robbery-in-progress or some other such emergency, they jump on it.

Mark White: “There is a bit of a combat mentality to day-in and day-out living as a cop. You know it’s unlikely that you’re going to get in a gunfight that shift. But it’s always a possibility.”

That possibility is something that adds to the disconnect between how officers see the world, and how many Portlanders see it.

It’s a disconnect that the chief, Rosie Sizer, deals with every day.

Traditionally, police brass have been loath to second guess an officer’s use of force. But after Sizer became chief, she directed officers to take control of a situation using the minimum force necessary — and only if that didn’t work, to step up to the next level.

Mark White: “I don’t think there’s a big objection to that kind of philosophy. It’s certainly not practical in all situations. There can be any number of kinds of scenarios where an officer might have to go to deadly force in a split second. There’s no time to go through a continuum of any kind.”

It’s that kind of split-second decision that terrifies Kathleen Ris.

She says her 19-year-old son, Joe, is bipolar, suffers from severe anxiety, and won’t take his medications. He lives on the streets downtown.

She’s petrified that one day, he’ll come face to face with a police officer.

Kathleen Ris: “You know, there are key words that you can use and it’s just a matter of body language and things that you can say to de-escalate a situation. To drop that level of volatility. To drop the level of adrenaline. And sometimes it’s just taking a step back and breathing for 10 seconds. You know if it’s not an absolute threat, if someone’s not standing in front of you waving a gun, why can’t they do that.”

Her fears stem in part from the case of James Chasse, a mentally-ill man who died in police custody three years ago.

She thinks officers need to consider themselves social workers as much as law enforcement officials.

Kathleen Ris: “I don’t envy their job because they have to deal with every personality in the book. And I just don’t think they equip the officers with the right kind of training or social skills to go out and deal with the vast majority of the population. Especially here in downtown Portland.”

Meanwhile, she goes about her day in fear.

Kathleen Ris: “I get up every morning and pray that I don’t get the phone call. That’s he’s not dead.That he’s not incarcerated again. That he hasn’t been shot. That he hasn’t been sexually assaulted. I just thank God every morning that I wake up, that I didn’t get that call.”