Some 12 hours after hostage negotiators persuaded a mentally ill, gun-waving 50-year-old man to peacefully emerge from his Goose Hollow apartment, Portland police officials this afternoon were triumphantly taking credit for averting a “huge tragedy” that could have ended, easily, with the death of the man they arrested, or maybe—in a worst-case horror story—with the man shooting as many as dozens of other citizens.“I didn’t think it was going to end peacefully,” Central Precinct Captain Bob Day admitted during a noontime news conference to discuss the high-tension standoff with a man who had been the subject of two other police calls in the past week before a neighbor reported him making threats.
And what brought about that mostly happy ending? Among many reasons, one stands out: Restraint.
In what even top police officials would call a dramatic shift in their thinking, officers decided not to leap immediately into a confrontation with the man, identified as John Loxley Griffin—acknowledging in a way they usually don’t that sometimes officers’ very presence in a situation can lead it to spiral fatally out of control.
In fact, in the two previous incidents with Griffin, both of which also involved guns, officers “walked away” because it wasn’t clear Griffin had committed a crime, and also because Griffin had calmed down. Instead, officers worked with mental health professionals, Veterans Affairs, relatives, and the district attorney’s office to obtain a civil commitment hold for Griffin. That plan went awry after Griffin last night finally did, police say, commit a crime: pointing a gun outside his Southwest Yamhill window and actually threatening to shoot someone.
“This is a big change under the leadership of Chief [Mike] Reese,” said Day, until recently the bureau’s top training officer. “[Mentally ill subjects] may not be receptive [to officers’ offers of help]. At what point do we force help, and what might be the consequences?”
Unfortunately, that message might be lost amid news coverage that has—so far—seemed to focus intensely on the huge cache of weapons turned up in Griffin’s apartment: body armor, 12 rifles, handguns, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, etc.
But for a police bureau that’s facing federal scrutiny of how it uses force against the mentally ill, especially after a particularly bloody run of police shootings starting in January 2010 through the early months of 2011, it’s a shift worth noting.
Day said sergeants all across the bureau are being trained on the finer points of “walking away,” with training for all officers planned over the course of the next year. In Griffin’s case, when asked why officers didn’t try to take him into custody before last night’s standoff, Day hammered again the notion that heavy-handed action can sometimes backfire.
“That is a very difficult balance,” he said, invoking the term “risk vs. reward.” “Any action we take is…going to be an overt action, which is going to provoke a reaction from the citizen.”
Earlier Wednesday, a crisis team police officer, teamed with a Cascadia worker, had devoted much of his shift to learning as much as he could about Griffin’s temperament and history. He concocted a plan, with the help of Griffin’s girlfriend and apartment manager, to lure Griffin out of his apartment and into the the hands of undercover officers who would have placed him in a civil commitment hold and into the VA system for treatment.
That didn’t work. Griffin was reportedly too suspicious—a case of not being wrong that someone was out to get him. Later he waved the gun, and then it was a crime that officials said they could no longer ignore.
Tactical officers from Washington County—Portland’s tactical team was out of town for its annual one-week training retreat, officials say—even adopted restraint as their mantra during the standoff. Instead of announcing themselves to Griffin immediately, and risking violence, officers cleared out the surrounding apartments and cordoned off nearby streets without Griffin realizing.
“From what we know, it was exactly as it should be,” says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, long an advocate for improving how cops interact with the mentally ill. “We want them to come in with a plan, talk to family, talk to clinicians, talk to a landlord. This is a person whose thinking may be very impaired. They may appear malevolent, but they they may actually just be in crisis.”
But police officials also recognized that of the hundreds of calls they receive each day involving someone who is mentally ill or in crisis, they rarely have the luxury of investing the kind of time and energy the spent on Griffin’s case. Griffin also wasn’t as manic as some who wind up in confrontations with police. He was actually sleeping when negotiators rang him up to coax him outside.
And as Renaud notes, plans can go out the window when someone in a standoff continues to act erratically.
“The gun comes out again and points out the window,” he says, “and all this negotiation comes out of the away, and they go back to being cops.