U.S. Justice Department launches civil rights review of Portland police

From The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein. June 8, 2011

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez today announced a federal investigation into whether the Portland police are engaged in a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations relating to officers’ use of force.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez (center) flanked by Portland Mayor Sam Adams (left) and U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, announces a federal review of the Portland Police Bureau today.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez (center) flanked by Portland Mayor Sam Adams (left) and U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, announces a federal review of the Portland Police Bureau today.

The Civil Rights Divisions Special Litigation section will conduct the review with the U.S. attorney’s office.

It will examine if there’s a pattern or practice of excessive force used by Portland police, particularly against people with mental illness.

Perez, speaking at a news conference in the U.S. Attorney’s office at the federal courthouse, said the review was prompted by the significant increase in police shooting over the last 18 months, the majority which involved people with mental illness.

Perez was joined today by Oregon U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, Portland’s mayor and police chief. Marva Davis, whose son Aaron Campbell was fatally shot by Portland police in January 2010, and James P. Chasse Sr., whose son James Chasse Jr. died in police custody in September 2006, were among those who attended the news conference, with their lawyer, Tom Steenson.

READ – The James Chasse Archives.
READ – The Aaron Campbell Archives.
READ – Perez Notice Letter notifying Portland of DOJ investigation.
READ – Portland police face federal investigation, AP.com
READ – Federal Probe of Portland Police: What It Means and What Advocates Are Saying, Portland Mercury
READ – Justice launches investigation on Portland police, Washington Times
READ – U.S. probes use of force by Portland, Oregon police, Reuters
READ – Let justice roll, like a dialogue?, op ed from The Oregonian
READ – Justice department investigates Portland police, Portland Tribune
READ – Feds Announce ‘Collaborative’ Investigation Of Portland Police Bureau, Willamette Week
READ – Justice Department to investigate Portland cops, The Columbian
READ – Officer not down: Police keep it safe, Portland Tribune

Perez said the full review has three goals: to reduce crime, to ensure respect for the U.S. Constitution and to ensure public confidence in law enforcement.

“Make no mistake, our investigation will be independent, it will be fair, and it will be thorough, but it also will be collaborative,” Perez said. “We must learn and listen from all affected stakeholders.

“We’re not here to fix the blame, we’re here to fix the problem.”

April 25 1975

April 25 1975

Mayor Sam Adams said he welcomes the inquiry and expects the city and the bureau to learn from the investigation.

“We more than welcome this investigation,” he said. ” We asked for it. … This is a difficult situation. We are humble in the knowledge that we don’t have it all figured out.”

GRAPHIC RIGHT, from The Oregonian A1, April 25, 1975 – the launch of the infamous Lezak Commission, investigating the police-caused deaths of four African-American men. Federal Attorney Sidney Lezak closed the commission within months after assuring community advocates and PSU students justice would be asserted. No convictions, no prosecutions, no indictments.

Portland Police Chief Mike Reese said he was proud of the work his officers do every day on the street, in their encounters with homeless people, those suffering from mental illness or drug abuse. He said he sees the federal review as a unique opportunity to work with the federal justice department to ensure his officers are at the forefront of how to address these issues.

“We are accountable, and we hold ourselves accountable,” Reese said.

Jo Ann Bowman, a former state legislator and [former] executive director of Oregon Action, and Joyce Harris, the co-chair of the African American Alliance, voiced concern that the focus of the review was on police use of force involving the mentally ill and not on discrimination experienced by African Americans and low-income people.

Bowman asked: “How do you make sure race doesn’t get lost in this?”

Perez said: “We will be listening to every corner of the community.”

Holton said the investigation is an opportunity to make sure Portland officers are equipped, trained and ready to do the best job they can consistent with the U.S. Constitution and federal civil rights law.

“This is an opportunity to reach around the table and figure out what challenges we have and fix them,” Holton said.

Daryl Turner, president of the the Portland Police Association, issued a statement saying officers do a difficult job dealing with the mentally ill who don’t get adequate treatment.

“The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation is not an indictment of Portland Police Officers, but rather an investigation into the systems that are at work in this difficult situation,” Turner said. “We welcome that review, as we believe it will illustrate the reality of today’s policing and will show the service, hard work and dedication of the men and women of the Portland Police Bureau.”

The investigators will first meet with police supervisors and officers, and other local police administration. Second, the team of lawyers and police experts will talk to community stakeholders “with relevant insights on this matter,” according to a letter Perez wrote to Mayor Sam Adams, dated today.

“Our investigation will be independent, but we will provide real time feedback to you, and ensure that the lines of communication are open throughout the review,” Perez wrote. “We have not prejudged what, if any, remedy is necessary.”

“Please be assured that we have not reached any conclusions about the subject matter of the investigation, and that we will consider all relevant information, including efforts that the City of Portland and the PPB have undertaken to ensure compliance with federal law,” Perez wrote to Mayor Adams, in a letter dated June 8.

The police investigation will overlap with an ongoing federal investigation into Oregon’s mental health care system, the federal officials said.

The action – the first comprehensive federal investigation into the Portland Police Bureau – comes amid a string of controversial Portland officer-involved fatal shootings or deaths in police custody of people suffering from mental illness.

In February 2010, city officials, including former police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Mayor Sam Adams, had asked the U.S. Justice Department to conduct a full review of the Police Bureau after the Jan. 29, 2010 police fatal shooting of Campbell, an unarmed black man who was distraught following the death of his brother earlier that day.

Community leaders disturbed by the high-profile police shootings and deaths in custody also pressed for such an inquiry.

Among their concerns: the high profile September 2006 death of James P. Chasse Jr. in police custody , a 42-year-old man who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia to the past year’s spate of officer-involved shootings, including the fatal shooting of a 58-year-old homeless man Jack Dale Collins who emerged from a restroom at Hoyt Arboretum with an X-Acto knife to the shooting of homeless veteran Thomas Higginbotham, who was shot 10 times after he emerged from a Southeast Portland car wash with a knife.

After the announcement, community leaders gave their reaction on the front steps of the U.S. District Court in Portland.

Dr. Leroy Haynes, of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, said he expects the federal investigation will help the city “reform the Portland Police Bureau.”

“The issue is accountability. Just as they want accountability from the citizens of Portland. We also want accountability from the Portland police. There are some great officers out there doing an outstanding job, but there are also some bad apples.”

Campbell’s mother, Marva Davis, said changes in the police bureau need to be made.

“It gives us hope,” Davis said.

Steenson, who said he has represented 10 to 12 families who have had loved ones who have either been fatally shot or wounded by Portland police, said he welcomes the federal investigation.

“We hope the city of Portland, the Portland Police Bureau and the police union will open up and be receptive to change,” Steenson said.

He added that he hopes the city, bureau and union will “not ignore, but “actually face up to its problems.”

After the Chasse family obtained a $1.6 million settlement with the city in its federal civil rights lawsuit for the death in custody of James P. Chasse Jr., the father retained a lawyer in Washington, D.C. to present the reams of documents obtained in discovery and depositions to the U.S. Department of Justice. Steenson said he believes that meeting with federal justice officials in the spring of 2010 also helped spur this investigation.

In the wider civil investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which could last up to 1 1/2 years, special litigation attorneys in the civil rights division will evaluate bureau policies, procedures and practices, as well as specific officer-involved fatal shootings or deaths in custody, such as James P. Chasse Jr.’s death in 2006.

If violations are identified, the federal agency would recommend remedies and may monitor the Police Bureau until it’s satisfied the bureau has addressed the problems.

The U.S. Justice Department began an investigation into Oregon’s state mental hospital in 2006. In 2008, the Justice Department warned Oregon that care and conditions at the state hospital violated patients’ rights. State and federal officials have been in talks since then to correct deficiencies and head off a lawsuit. Oregon leaders have said they want to avoid having a federal judge dictate what kind of mental health system the state has.

In 2010, the US Justice Department investigation expanded their inquiry beyond the Oregon State Hospital, to the state mental health care system. In addition to looking at conditions and care inside the mental hospital wards, the Justice Department is questioning how budget cuts affect the level of care people with mental illnesses receive in the community.

“We have two separate but unrelated investigations underway here,” Perez said.

The federal officials said they also welcome any information from the community as they launch the investigation into Portland police use of force.

To contact the federal justice department, the public can send information via e-mail to community.portland@usdoj.gov or call 1-877-218-5228.