Testimony to Portland City Council from the Mental Health Association of Portland
Speaking on behalf of supporters of the Mental Health Association of Portland, I support the changes proposed by the director of the Independent Police Review, and endorse the recommendations you have heard from Portland Copwatch. Civilian oversight of the police is a difficult and still maturing task – give your staff the tools to make the work meaningful to us.
We now know our police had a pattern and practice of harming persons with mental illness. Stipulated – policework in Portland is changing. But our blindness and denial indicates a diligent manager will find routine harm to the same group in surrounding bureaucracies, different – but routine, and harm.
It’s common for persons with a diagnosis of mental illness to have unusual concerns and fears about police officers. The experience of mental illness expands and warps average thoughts and impulses. When symptoms are present, many people with mental illness avoid any engagement with police, or anyone associated with police.
In our experience a disproportionate number of persons with mental illness come in contact with police officers, and a disproportionate number have been harmed by officers. However, for people with mental illness, the citizen complaint process the IPR presents is daunting. The paperwork, investigations, lengthy waits, and public exposure are substantial barriers to participation.
Accommodation is needed as an add-on to the already successful IPR Citizen-Police Mediation Program, and there is a simple way to provide it.
Our suggestion is the IPR hire peer mediators who share common life experience with persons with mental illness. These peer mediators would be trained and supervised within the IPR to meet prospective complainants in the community, in clinics, in homes, and to start a conversation about how police review works, about how an IPR investigation is managed, and also to offer an alternative – a personal conversation with the identified officer.
If the alternative is selected, the peer worker can make an informal arrangement for the complainant and peer mediators to meet briefly with the identified officer and one of their supervisors. This meeting should not be in a police station, and the officers should be out of uniform. The officer should be coached to listen and respond minimally. The prospective complainant should be instructed the meeting will be short and not repeated.
The opportunity to speak, privately and face-to-face, is far more likely to result in meaningful and satisfying conflict resolution than a lengthy investigation and hearing.
We believe if the IPR is allowed and supported to implement a peer mediator-model, complaints to the IPR will decrease, and public trust of officers will increase.
Conflict is normal, and resolution needs to be simple, rapid, and accessible. Our task, as city stewards, is to make so conflict resolution is available to all, including Portlanders with a psychiatric disability.