Spoken Testimony from MHAP at DOJ v PDX “Fairness” Hearing

TO: Judge Michael Simon and parties to the case of United States Department of Justice v. City of Portland, friends and “enhanced” friends.

Our work since 2003 has been to act as an independent and impartial witness to Portland’s mental health system. By “independent” we mean we do not receive funding from any government, foundation, corporation, church, or other non-profit organization. Our independence creates our impartial position. That position doesn’t enable us to speak the truth to power insomuch as we just can get to the truth before others can.

We have closely watched DOJ v City of Portland and see it as a predictable outcome of our long-term advocacy strategy. Since 2006 and the death of James Chasse, we made it our primary business to shine a light on the routine harms caused by police officers to Portlanders with mental illness. We’ve thoroughly reviewed the Settlement Agreement, and we have spoken to both parties, as well as dozens of other leaders in the mental illness field about implementation issues.

Our testimony today is in addition to our written testimony, which we provided the Court, along with the other documents, and scores of articles we’ve posted on our web site and allowed to be published in local newspapers.

The Mental Health Association of Portland believes the Settlement Agreement is not adequate, not fair, not reasonable.

Briefly, our written testimony describes five points of deficiency.

  1. The Agreement must be rejected by the Court for inadequacy of language.
  2. The Agreement must be considered by the Court entirely unfair, because it was concocted without the persons it purports to serve.
  3. The Court must reject the Agreement as unreasonable because the Agreement fails to protect persons with mental illness from dangerous police officers.
  4. Until the Agreement provides necessary and sufficient tools to cause the City to implement all agreed items, regardless of cost or difficulty, it is inadequate and the Court should reject it.
  5. Failing to provide basic accommodations for disabled persons central to the Agreement leaves the Agreement inadequate, and it should be rejected by the Court.

We recognize there has been a drop-off in the number of police killings of persons with mental illness since DOJ v. City of Portland was announced. City Hall and the Bureau take claim for that change, pointing to improvements in training and policy. We believe those are an unlikely cause. Far more influential has been the coverage by Portland media, now matched by national media, exposing cases of police brutality, especially against persons with mental illness. Public pressure is a marvelous tool to change recalcitrant misbehavior, but it does not produce lasting change. Without the force of law, when the media chase another issue, police will return to their old ways.

The Agreement is overly dependent on training and policy change as solutions for brutality. It misunderstands the problem. No part of the Agreement would protect persons with mental illness from Christopher Humphrey. Only one thing would, and that is to have a civilian-operated mechanism to immediately separate dangerous or rogue officers from duty. Police are empowered to use force by the citizens they serve on condition they use it only as necessary, in accordance with the law, and certainly without brutality against the City’s most vulnerable people. If our civilian leaders cannot take that power back, without argument or delay, we have absented control of our police force to other police officers. By not removing Humphreys the Portland Police Bureau showed it is incapable of policing itself, and a 13 year-old girl was hurt. By not implementing a civilian-operated mechanism to separate dangerous or rogue officers, City Council demonstrate they are uninterested in police oversight.

Unless there is a citizen-driven mechanism to remove officers who abuse the badge, people with mental illness will not be safe, and Portland will not have government by the people, for the people.

Finally we want to speak about Item 90 in the Agreement.

90. The United States expects that the local CCOs will establish, by mid-2013, one or more drop-off center(s) for first responders and public walk-in centers for individuals with addictions and/or behavioral health service needs. All such drop off/walk in centers should focus care plans on appropriate discharge and community based treatment options, including assertive community treatment teams, rather than unnecessary hospitalization.

As our written testimony indicates, the Mental Health Association of Portland reviewed the Agreement with other mental health leaders and professionals from many agencies in January 2013. They generally agreed the Agreement is inept in its conception of which services are needed, and how best to provide them. But the Agreement does require the provision of Drop-Off and Walk-In Centers for persons in crisis. These are unquestionably needed.

It’s important to note, the Agreement states the Drop-Off and Walk-In Centers would be available by Summer of 2013. It is now Spring of 2014. To our knowledge, no work has been done by the City to bring these services to the community. The City, therefore, is already out of compliance with the Agreement.

Our toil during the past year – to form a work group about the Walk-In Centers, to discern best practices, create basic clinical guidelines, design a budget, develop hiring strategies, and anticipate siting and system integration issues – has been quashed by the City, as I discovered about a month ago when I was told, in a private meeting with Mayor [Charlie] Hales’ senior staff, that the Mayor had no intention of including either a Drop-Off Center or a Walk-In Center in his 2014/2015 budget. The senior staffer repeatedly stated the City had neither the ability nor the responsibility to develop mental health services. When I pointed out this was immaterial because an Agreement had been signed, I was rebuffed.

Last week Mayor Hales met with members of the Portland Commission on Disability to discuss public safety. During the meeting Hales contradicted his senior staff saying he fully intends to comply with the entire Settlement Agreement. Note – this comment came days before this hearing, and in front of prospective testifiers. Note – the Mayor’s statement is not reflected in his 2014/2015 budget drafts.

We don’t believe him. To date, he and his staff have done nothing to open a Drop-Off or a Walk-In Center.

We believe a safe haven such as a Walk-In Center is the only item in the Agreement which could have supported and saved persons such as Keaton Otis, Jack Collins, James Chasse, Aaron Campbell, Tom Higgenbotham or Brad Morgan. Police are not a solution to mental illness – unless the municipality, by stupidity or arrogance, refuses to provide necessary and sufficient services. Our experience, our witness, is that police and the criminal justice system are the most expensive, least effective solution for mental illness.

Enough talk. The City’s non-compliance, shown in both delay and denial, proves it a non-cooperative partner to the Agreement, and therefore the court should proceed to bring both parties to trial and make a final binding ruling to compel compliance.

Presented by Jason Renaud and Jenny Westberg, board members of the Mental Health Association of Portland.