Federal police probe focuses on mental health, not race

From the Portland Tribune, June 15, 2011

The U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the Portland Police Bureau is part of larger trend of federal probes into local law enforcement agencies under the Obama Administration.

It is not yet clear how the federal government will react if it concludes the police have a pattern of civil rights violations.

One of the only recent investigations completed by the justice department to date focused on the New Orleans Police Department. It found a history of widespread violations of federal laws, and it coincided with the prosecution of several officers for federal crimes, including murder during Hurricane Katrina.

But the day before Department of Justice officials announced the Portland investigation, they declared that no federal charges would be brought against any officials involved in the death of Aaron Campbell, one of the most controversial police killings in the city.

Campbell, an unarmed and suicidal African-American, was shot in the back by police during a lengthy standoff at a Northeast Portland apartment complex in January 2010. The killing provoked outrage within the African-American community and among advocates for the mentally ill.

The controversy also prompted Mayor Sam Adams and then-Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman to call for a federal civil rights investigation.

On June 7, the Department of Justice announced that the police had not violated Campbell’s civil rights.

“Neither accident, mistake, fear, negligence nor bad judgment is sufficient to establish such a criminal violation,” according to a department press release. “After a careful review of the facts, a team of experienced federal prosecutors determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the law enforcement personnel who fired at Campbell acted willfully, meaning with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids.”

The next day, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general of department’s Civil Rights Division, appeared at a Portland press conference to announce the investigation into the police. He said it was prompted by a significant increase in officer-involved shootings during the past 18 months, particularly involving people with mental health issues. They included a homeless man armed with a small razor knife and a son attacking his parents’ home with a machete.

In fact, although the press conference was attended by several of the city’s most prominent African-American leaders, Perez spent most of his time talking about the need to review the relationship between the police and those with mental health issues. Among other things, he noted the department was already investigating Oregon’s mental health system, and noted the two investigations will overlap.

At one point, African-American activist Jo Ann Bowman asked that racial minorities not be overlooked. Perez assured her that department investigators would seek them out.

But Perez also stressed that the goal of the investigation is not to point fingers, but to identify and change policies and procedures within the bureau to remedy ongoing problems.

“Our goal is to fix problems, not fix the blame,” he said.

Also appearing at the press conference, Oregon U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton said the debate about possible police misconduct has been dominated by “extreme voices” in the past.

“Like at a hockey game, the puck goes down and sticks start flying. It has to stop,” Holton said.