With a new mayor, Portland should kickstart police reforms to help those with mental illness

Published in The Oregonian, January 19, 2017
By Jenny Westberg and Jason Renaud

As Portland shifts leadership from Charlie Hales to Ted Wheeler, it’s important to remember one Hales administration failure that continues to threaten the most vulnerable among us.

After more than four years of attempted compliance with legally-prescribed reforms, and despite new hires, media hand-wringing and millions spent on consultants and public process, the city’s police have yet to reduce their use of force against people with mental illness.

Force data summary reports now available on the Portland Police Bureau website show that, from spring 2015 through last fall, the number of use-of-force incidents involving persons with mental illness has remained flat, if not slightly increasing.

This apparent lack of improvement could reflect changes in how such incidents are counted and reported. But we suspect there’s more going on.

Foremost, the chronic underfunding and anemic management of the public mental health system leaves many people unable to get effective care when it would actually do some good: before the crisis, before the escalation, before the bullets.

Insisting mental health is not city business, Hales failed to engage county and state administrators in any relevant discussion about the problem as it relates to the city. He maintained the “It’s not my job” stance, arguing care for people with mental illness is the province of state and county, not city. But thoughtful observers note people with mental illness are patiently petitioning city bureaus, including housing, the Independent Police Review, police and fire; they’re giving testimony at City Council, participating in committees, and when they get hurt or killed, filing complaints.

The welfare of the sick and suffering is everyone’s business.

Instead, Hales waged a campaign to diminish and deny findings by the Department of Justice that the Portland Police Bureau had a “pattern and practice” of harming people with mental illness. He directed the city attorney to file petty appeals, thereby delaying reform. He refused to meet with a public oversight committee as required by a settlement agreement and failed to support it as members quit in frustration.

People so ill they need police engagement don’t respect clearly defined governmental boundaries. They hop from state to county to city to another state or county. This is a well-documented, well-understood consequence of not providing access to mental health care, so wholly a responsibility of all governments. As former County Chair, Wheeler has the experience to understand this consequence, and skills to bring all parties to the discussion.

We need police who are well-trained, well-resourced and accountable, who serve and protect, who treat all Portlanders with compassion and dignity, who don’t harm people for being different. Mayor Wheeler can do a lot to move us toward such a future and he should start now.

Jenny Westberg and Jason Renaud are board members of the Mental Health Association of Portland.

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