Federal authorities investigating the Portland Police Bureau’s use of force held their first public meeting Tuesday night in St. Johns to gather citizens’ accounts of their interactions with city officers.
More than 60 people attended. Their complaints varied, but all pleaded with the federal investigators to do what they said the city hasn’t done: Hold police accountable for their actions.
“There is a culture in this police department that shoots first and ask questions later,” said Joe Walsh. “We want the police department to do community service, period.”
Fred Bryant, a 52-year Portland resident and the father of Keaton Otis, who was fatally shot by police in May 2010, said he’s afraid for his grandchildren.
He said he’s disturbed that police first pulled over his son after suspecting he was a gang member. And he called the grand jury process that reviews such cases a “joke.”
“These people have not talked to me since my son was killed,” Bryant said. “My son should not be gone. How many more children have to go? We don’t trust the police.”
Clo Eve Allen questioned why officers who fatally shoot people in controversial cases often don’t face criminal charges.
Chris O’Connor, a criminal defense attorney and Board Member of the Mental Health Association of Portland, urged investigators to look at officers who routinely accuse people of resisting arrest, suggesting the charge masks inappropriate police conduct.
“There is a select group that initiates these contacts, escalates these contacts and gets away with it because there’s zero oversight,” O’Connor said.
The U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation June 28 to determine whether the Police Bureau engages in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force, particularly against people with mental illness.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez has said the review was prompted by a significant increase in police shootings in the previous 18 months, the majority involving people with mental illness.
Jonathan Smith, chief of the special litigation section’s civil rights division for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., told the crowd: “What you have to say and what you have to tell us is a critically important part of our investigation.”
Smith said the federal team is in the middle of the police review, which is occurring as a federal investigation proceeds into Oregon’s mental health system.
“We’re looking at a broad scope. Is there a systematic or a structural failure?” Smith said. “We’ll be done when we finish looking.”
U.S. Attorney for Oregon Amanda Marshall, two of her assistant U.S. attorneys, four Justice Department attorneys and a retired Miami-Dade police expert sat at a front table, taking notes as people spoke in the St. Johns Community Center.
Several speakers said they consider most police heroes but can’t tolerate officers who abuse their power.
David Green, active with the Mental Health Association of Portland, recited the names of people killed over the years by police, including Jose Mejia Poot in April 2001 and James P. Chasse Jr. in September 2006.
“Their voices are crying out from the grave for justice,” Green said.
He said he was particularly troubled when the police union marched in support of Officer Christopher Humphreys, who was disciplined in the in-custody death of Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia.
“I’m afraid when I see a police officer,” Green said.
Jason Renaud, an advocate with the Mental Health Association of Portland, said he was dismayed the town hall was held in the middle of the inquiry rather than the start.
Last August, Justice Department officials held individual interviews with community groups, including the Urban League, Central City Concern and JOIN. Investigators are continuing to meet with police supervisors and officers.
In response to federal recommendations, Reese has moved to change how sergeants investigate officers’ use of force and assigned a new inspector to analyze data on all such incidents, a gap identified by the Justice Department. The new policy on sergeants is on hold pending negotiations with the police union.
Several speakers said they’re relying on federal officials to make a positive change.
“Don’t give us fluff!” Bryant urged. “Do the right thing!”
With that, the crowd stood and applauded.
Portlanders pack meeting to sound off on police bureau
Dozens Turn Out For DOJ Hearing On Portland Police Department
Dozens of Portlanders turned out for a federal hearing on the Portland Police Bureau. The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation on the Bureau’s use of force.
Some who testified called police heroes. But others told stories about traffic stops and mental health emergencies turned violent. Most of those who spoke said the Justice Department needs to rein in the city’s police.
Others asked for more training for police, or a wider safety net for people with mental illness.
Dr. LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance said he’d like more opportunities for the investigators to hear from Portlanders on the margins.
Haynes said, “We’re still not touching everyone. Many people are intimidated about speaking out against the Portland Police Bureau in a public setting. We have to find another avenue for those voices to be heard.”
Those who made it to the St. Johns Community Center on the city’s far north end got to talk directly to Amanda Marshall, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon. A number of attendees criticized the venue as too distant and hard to find.