No Progress to Show in Four Years of Police Reform in Portland

Author – Michael Hopcroft, Board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland

On February 25th, a status conference was held in federal court about the settlement of a civil rights case on police use of force. In 2012, the US Department of Justice sued the City of Portland over multiple cases of excessive or inappropriate force against people with mental illness. The parties reached a settlement, but the city must meet many conditions to show change.

In 2020 we have a different President and a different approach at the Department of Justice. But the conditions of the settlement are important enough that several groups filed “friend of the court” briefs to get a say in the matter. They had that say at the status conference.

I testified as one of those friends of the court. My testimony was based on my review of police data which purports to show their change. As a person with mental illness, I have been taken several times by officers and to hospital. They helped me. All I ask is from the Portland Police Bureau is not to be killed. Reducing use of force against people with mental illness is the intent of the federal case. And after looking at the data what did I find? From 2015 to 2019, there has been no substantial reduction in use of force by Portland police against people with mental illness.

Example: In 2019 the Portland Police Bureau killed five people – all in some form of mental health crisis. At the same time in New York City – with ten times the population of Portland – police killed ten people. According to the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database, none were in a mental health crisis.

The principal problem we, and other advocates on police use of force, are facing is the information we need from the Police Bureau is presented in a difficult way to find actual trends in. The criteria for presenting the data appears to change about every couple of years. How the data is measured has changed several times. The court can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison, only an apples-to-cheeseburgers comparison.

Portland Police use three data categories – people in a mental health crisis, people in a crisis involving drugs or alcohol, and “transients”, a term for people police believe to be homeless. What their data does not show is how these categories are far from mutually exclusive. Since the police themselves collect and curate this data, their assumptions are baked into it.

In these uncertain times, data quality and clarity are essential to reduce use of force and claim success in police reform. Alternative ways of dealing with a crisis must be utilized and explored. Mental illness must be a higher priority, especially in times where COVID 19 makes symptoms of mental illness worse. But first, we need to know what is really happening out on the streets.

Police are in a unique position. They and they alone have the power to kill in the name of keeping the peace. It is a power that must be exercised with great care because once a person is dead no corrective measure will bring them back.


DOWNLOAD – Hopcroft’s full testimony from US DOJ v City of Portland status conference
ATTACHED – affidavit on Portland Police Bureau data, by Mark Leymon, PhD – Portland State University

Michael Hopcroft has been a member of the board of directors of the Mental Health Association of Portland since 2006.