Four months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division announced that it was examining whether there was a “pattern or practice” of Portland police using excessive force, particularly against the mentally ill.
The investigation was billed as a “remarkable opportunity,” a dialogue and collaboration. And maybe it is. Nevertheless, Portland police are operating in a petri dish now with a federal microscope of sorts magnifying their every move — and mistake.
This level of scrutiny has a tendency to concentrate all minds on improvement. We get that. Still, it’s reassuring to see that a new and smarter Portland Police Bureau really does seem to be emerging — one that understands how to back down.
As The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein reported last week, twice now the police have deescalated in a tense situation that previously might have triggered a fatality. These two retreats involved not only a mentally ill man, but a mentally ill man armed with a rifle and a shotgun.
The man had terrified his neighbors by acting the part almost of a self-appointed security guard in his Southwest Portland apartment. Paranoid and delusional, he’d walked the halls with his firearms, and screamed out his window while wearing a gas mask and bulletproof vest.
Only a third time — after the man pointed a rifle at his neighbor and muttered a threat about a “murderer’s apartment” — did police call for a tactical backup. After a six-hour standoff, the man was coaxed from his apartment. Even more noteworthy, he lived to tell about it.
Predictably perhaps, this carefully calibrated response has triggered fears that the bureau is now overcompensating, putting the public at risk by not being aggressive enough.
You can use this as evidence to buttress the point officers often make, that they’re in a no-win situation. But we think the take-away is a little more complicated: Good police officers are constantly making shrewd judgment calls and are experts at improvisation.
The public wants to believe that a policy manual prescribes an officer’s every move, and offers a script for averting meltdowns. It doesn’t work that way. Getting on the same wave length with someone who’s mentally ill involves as much art as science. And things can go wrong, or right, no matter what police do.
But being able to back down, skillfully, is an essential part of an officer’s repertoire. It’s taken years and a cultural evolution under three police chiefs to get to this point. And, yes, the federal investigation may be helping, too. But mark this moment: Officers now feel comfortable making a smart, calculated retreat.
This does not guarantee them success or absolve them from blame if things go haywire. But, given the bureau’s history of fatal encounters, this is a big deal. Being able to step back, intelligently, moves the Portland Police Bureau light years forward — toward the agency Portlanders want it to be.