PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday announced the results of an investigation into the Portland police department, saying officers use excessive force against mentally ill people — violations that include frequently discharging stun guns without justification.
The findings were the result of a federal civil rights investigation initiated last summer after a series of police shootings, many involving mentally ill suspects.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said the Department of Justice and the city have reached a preliminary agreement on reforms, such as increased training, expedited investigations and increased community oversight of the changes.
Perez said the DOJ found that encounters between the Portland Police Bureau and “persons living with mental illness too frequently result in the unnecessary use of force or in a higher level of force than was necessary.”
The federal agency opened its investigation in June 2011 to examine whether Portland police engaged in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force when dealing with the mentally ill.
Portland’s mayor and police chief cooperated with the investigation, Perez said.
“It’s disappointing to hear that the Department of Justice believes that you haven’t got it right,” said police Chief Mike Reese.
Federal officials have conducted similar reviews in other states. Seattle officials recently reached a deal with the DOJ, agreeing to court oversight and independent monitoring of the city’s police department.
Portland police have been criticized for years over how they deal with mentally ill suspects.
The DOJ announced its Portland investigation in the aftermath of the death of Aaron Campbell, an unarmed man who was fatally shot by officers who responded to a call that he was threatening suicide.
His death was not the only recent high-profile case, a public outcry followed the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr., a mentally ill man who died after he was chased and tackled by officers after he was said to have urinated in public.
Five years before that, the police shooting of Jose Mejia Poot at a psychiatric hospital drew calls for change in the way police handle the mentally ill.
The federal investigation said Thursday that most police uses of force were constitutional, but that officers sometimes use too much, including situations involving minor offenses.
“Fundamentally, we have to treat people in mental health crisis with compassion and empathy,” Reese said. “We can’t treat them the same way we do somebody that’s committed a bank robber.”
The investigation singled out stun gun use, saying officers frequently discharged them without justification or used them too many times on a given suspect.
In July 2011, for example, officers responded to the home of a mentally ill man who had allegedly assaulted his mother and had a sword. Though the man’s hands were visible and he had no weapon, one officer shocked him with a stun gun and another shot with a beanbag round.
Federal officials also said Oregon’s statewide mental health system has “gaps in services” that often make the police the first responders when people are in a mental health crisis. In this, Oregon is not alone, Perez said.
“In communities across this country, the largest mental health facility is the jail,” he said. “That’s wrong, and we need to change that.”
The report noted that Oregon has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the U.S., and many people in that population have serious mental illness.
“Given our anemic community-based mental health system,” said Mayor Sam Adams, “I appreciate that the findings note that the already tough job of being a Portland police officer has gotten even tougher.”
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