Portland Police Shooting Raises Questions About Proper Response to Suicidal Subjects

By Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian, Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Portland police officer investigates the police-involved shooting on the roof of a downtown parking garage.

The Associated Press
A Portland police officer investigates the police-involved shooting on the roof of a downtown parking garage.

An autopsy found that Brad Lee Morgan, who was shot by Portland police early Wednesday, died of a single gunshot wound to the head, according to Dr. Larry Lewman, of the State Medical Examiner’s Office. A second bullet tore through Morgan’s jacket and sweater and exited without hitting his body.

The officer-involved shooting, which will be reviewed by a Multnomah County grand jury, has already raised questions among some in the rank-and-file and in the mental health community as to whether the bureau would be better suited returning to its old model of having a Crisis Intervention Team of specialized officers available at moment’s notice for such calls. They’d be on patrol, scattered through the three shifts in each of the precincts.

Morgan had called 9-1-1 at 3:17 a.m. Wednesday, saying he had committed a robbery at knifepoint and was going to jump off a downtown parking garage. An officer and sergeant in the bureau located Morgan. They called for police negotiators and Project Respond mental health workers to help talk the man down. But before the assistance arrived, the officer and sergeant started to talk to Morgan atop the garage.

Police have not said whether the two officers walked up to the man or where they were standing during the conversation.

Within 15 minutes, both officers fired multiple shots at Morgan when they said he pointed a black handgun at them, according to police. The gun turned out to be a fake.

Police would not say if the sergeant and officer had been interviewed.

In a news release on Wednesday’s shooting, the Police Bureau noted that officers had called for Project Respond and officers from the bureau’s Crisis Negotiation Team, formerly known as the Hostage Negotiation Team. But the shooting occurred before they got to the scene.

“All Portland Police Bureau officers are trained in Crisis Intervention; however, CNT and Project Respond bring additional experience and equipment,” the release said. “Both Project Respond and CNT are on a call-out basis and are 25-30 minutes away at a minimum.”

Even if a Project Respond crisis worker had arrived, he or she likely wouldn’t have been able to approach the scene since police had information that Morgan may have been armed, said Jay Ausland, Project Respond director.

In 2007, Portland police switched from a voluntary crisis intervention training program for a select group of officers, led by an officer or sergeant, to mandatory training for all officers. The switch came after the controversial 2006 death in police custody of James P. Chasse Jr., who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He was tackled by police and died from blunt force trauma to the chest.

Retired Sgt. Karl McDade, who was Portland’s first Crisis Intervention Team coordinator, argues that the old approach is more effective. “Yes, they would respond much quicker and be pretty well trained. It might turn out better. I think the odds are that it would.”

But McDade said, in these situations, “There’s no guarantee that anything you do is going to turn out well. When someone points something that legitimately looks like a gun, you don’t have much of a choice, other than find cover and back off.”

Advocates of the former CIT model say all officers don’t have the judgment, maturity level, experience or interest that makes crisis intervention training effective.

But Chief Mike Reese disagrees. He’s defended the current approach, saying the mandatory crisis intervention training for all officers lays a needed foundation for the entire force. He has argued that the mandatory training, coupled with the bureau’s one-car mobile crisis unit – which pairs an officer with a Project Respond worker — and the bureau’s negotiation team, which helps on calls involving armed or suicidal people, provides an innovative “layered” approach.

“Reverting to only a few officers having specialized mental health training would be a step in the wrong direction,” said police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson on Thursday.

Central Precinct’s mobile crisis car was not operating early Wednesday. Its hours are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.