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Chicago academics suggest Ore. police survey mentally ill people they encounter

The group said the only way to accurately measure whether their encounters have improved is to ask people themselves

By Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. The only way to accurately measure whether Portland police are improving their encounters with people who have mental illnesses is to survey the people themselves, says a team of Chicago-based academics hired by the city to monitor police reforms.

The team made the recommendation in its second quarterly report examining Police Bureau changes required in a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

A 2012 Justice Department investigation found Portland police used excessive force against people with mental illnesses. The negotiated agreement, approved by a federal judge in August 2014, calls for a wide range of remedies, including updates to police use of force and Taser policies and the dispatch of specially-trained officers to respond to mental crisis calls.

The professors are working with the bureau to poll people who have had recent contacts with police. It would include people with mental illnesses and people of color – two groups that federal investigators said the city police force must treat better.

“These surveys can give the community a voice in police services, assist the Portland Police Bureau in monitoring officers’ field performance and evaluate the effectiveness of training,’' their report said.

The team repeated many of the shortcomings identified earlier this year by the Justice Department in a separate progress report. The community will have the chance to comment on the team’s ideas at a town hall meeting on Oct. 22.

Jason Renaud, who sits on the board of the Mental Health Association of Portland, said the survey is a good idea as long as the names of those questioned stay private from police. “These are fragile people and protections for them are essential,” Renaud said.

Amy Watson and Dennis Rosenbaum, the two University of Illinois professors who make up the compliance team, said the Police Bureau would send out the requests for information, and those asked to provide input would return their comments to Watson and Rosenbaum, or a third party, with no names attached.

Watson said they would not know the respondents’ identities, and the Police Bureau would not know who participated.

Rosenbaum and Watson also recommend that the Police Bureau abandon its so-called “48-hour rule,” which allows officers who use lethal force to wait at least two days before undergoing interviews by detectives. This year, officers involved in shootings declined to give any voluntary on-scene interviews, the report said.

Rosenbaum and Watson wrote that best practices require an immediate interview of an officer involved in a shooting, barring unusual circumstances. They suggested an immediate interview, with the potential for a more detailed interview a day later.

“Research suggests that the passage of time and talking with other people can seriously distort one’s recall of events,” they wrote.

Among their report’s other findings:

— The bureau’s use of force policy is confusing.

— The bureau’s new training center is well-managed. But police training curriculum places a greater emphasis on tactics of containment, taking suspects into custody, leveraging resources and communication with fellow officers. How to de-escalate critical incidents and when to use force get little attention.

— The bureau must work with emergency dispatchers to expand the types of mental health calls that its Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team officers go to. The bureau has 64 of these specially trained officers. The best practice would have enough of the officers available on each shift in each precinct to respond to all mental health-related calls, the report said.

—The city should explore creating a truly independent review system for complaints against police.

In separate action, the city’s new Community Oversight Advisory Board, a panel of citizens who help oversee the settlement, recommended this month that the Police Bureau rewrite its directives against bias-based policing and governing officers’ voluntary contacts to mirror those used by the Seattle Police Department.

Portland police discuss use of pretext stops Portland police Lt. Tashia Hager talks about police use of pretext stops

Seattle police last year adopted new “Stops and Detentions” and “Bias-Free Policing” policies to clarify how officers are to handle street encounters and help ensure that officers do not engage in discriminatory policing. The policies were approved by a federal monitor and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The advisory board also recommended Portland police collect data on all stops — broken down by individual officer and specialty unit – and no longer conduct pretext stops. Officers should also alert people during voluntary contacts that they have the right not to talk or answer police, the board said.

Tom Steenson, an attorney who sits on the advisory board, said police sometimes use the pretext stops as a “fishing expedition.’'

Police Lt. Tashia Hager, a non-voting member of the board, cautioned against a ban on pretext stops – a typical example would be using a minor traffic violation to investigate an unrelated suspected crime. Hager said the stops are an effective investigative tool that help police respond to neighborhood crime complaints.

Copyright 2015 The Oregonian