Thomas A. Perez
Assistant Attorney General
Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
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Dear Mr. Perez and colleagues,
Since 2003, the Mental Health Association of Portland (MHAP) has been Oregon’s only independent and impartial advocacy organization for persons with mental illness and addiction.
Independent means MHAP is entirely separate from any other group or mission; does not participate in closed-door meetings; and accepts no funding from corporate or governmental entities. Impartial means our actions are always public, transparent and without judgment. Advocacy means we speak up, speak out, and always speak the truth about mental illness and addiction. We refuse to be muzzled, no matter the cost — to our budget, or to others’ comfort.
A main focus of ours — now yours as well — has been tracking, documenting and publicizing officer-involved shootings in Portland. We appreciate your involvement, and we’d like to offer you some key pieces of information.
Your question: “Have the Portland police routinely and predictably harmed persons with mental illness?
Our answer, informed by years of close study, statistics and data compilation, is “Yes. Absolutely. And they continue to do so.”
According to our review of documents, since 1970 there have been 197 persons whom Portland police have: (1) shot and killed; (2) shot and wounded; (3) shot at; (4) beaten to death; or (5) lethally Tasered.
Out of these 197 cases, only one notable pattern emerged: most of the victims have been persons with active mental illness or addiction. All other demographics, such as race, followed expected statistical patterns for individuals who come into contact with police.
Note that we do not separate “persons with mental illness” from “persons with addiction.” Neither should you.
First, the distinction is often arbitrary, derived from an insurance company’s referral to psychiatric care on the one hand, or drug and alcohol treatment on the other.
Second, there is so much overlap between mental illness and addiction that trying to draw a boundary would be an absurd waste of time. Results of the Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) Survey and the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS) show that in any given year, 42.7% of individuals addicted to drugs or alcohol also have a mental illness; up to 61% of people with a serious mental illness also have an addiction; and 14.7% of people with any sort of mental illness deal with addiction. Comorbidity is so prevalent that a seemingly obvious causal relationship is entirely obscure. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says mental illness may lead to drug abuse. Or that drug abuse may lead to mental illness. Or both. Or perhaps the two have a common cause.
The two are twined so tightly that attempting to talk about mental illness exclusive of addiction is like trying to talk about the Atlantic Ocean and mentioning only the salt.
In sum: We don’t accept a difference in value to the person, and we urge you in the strongest possible terms to expand your investigation to include persons affected by addiction.
As mentioned above, we have documented 197 cases of Portland police violence since 1970, most involving persons with mental illness and/or addiction. We do not think Portland is unique; in fact, we believe both the following statements are true of most U.S. cities:
1. The overwhelming majority of citizens shot by police are in crisis from active mental illness and/or untreated addiction.
2. The city’s police officers, overall, are well-trained, well-meaning, capable, well-equipped and willing to be helpful – and blindly convinced they are, always have been, and ever will be blameless. This thinking can be explained by confirmation bias. Even while their own actions go from shocking to egregious to unimaginable, the police are ever more steadfast in their own defense.
We expect your findings and conclusions will be similar to ours. We expect, too, you will find yourselves in the same unfortunate position. Like us, you have neither the powers, authority or capacity to make changes that would cure mental illness and addiction, nor even to provide reasonable medical relief. No one does, which means this is a problem with no solution.
Unless, that is, society can achieve one thing: equal justice for all.
Our community has never had it. We’re counting on you to make a start.
In closing, we are happy to talk with you further, but as we mentioned, we do not attend private meetings. Our interest is public. Also, we represent persons with significant communications barriers; to meet privately would exclude the persons we represent. If you wish to meet, it would need to be in a public place that is safe for our friends. We would also need equipment to video record the meeting, in order to share it with friends who were not able to be present.
Good luck with your investigation. We hope we have helped enlarge your understanding of the problem. Let us know if we can assist further.