PORTLAND — The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into allegations of excessive force by the Portland Police Bureau after a series of incidents in the past 18 months involving mentally ill people.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez announced Wednesday in Portland that federal investigators will determine whether there is any pattern of civil-rights violations by Portland police officers.
Portland police officers have had a series of run-ins with mentally ill people that led to injuries and deaths. The most prominent case involved the death James Chasse Jr., who had schizophrenia, and was chased and tackled by officers after he allegedly urinated in public. He was shot with a stun gun, and suffered broken ribs that punctured his lung and led to his death in September 2006.
Perez said the Justice Department took a preliminary look at the use of force by Portland police after city officials requested the review in 2010. Federal officials found cause to launch a deeper investigation, adding that the review would give an overarching look at the “broader systemic issues” in the police bureau.
“It’s a remarkable opportunity to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony,” Perez said at a Wednesday press conference. “Make no mistake about it; our investigation will be fair, it will be independent and it will be thorough.”
Federal officials said they have conducted similar reviews in other states — including New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and California — to ensure compliance with federal law.
“It’s all smoke right now,” said Jason Renaud, a board member of the advocacy group Mental Health Association of Portland. “We’ll see what happens. It’s Day One.”
Perez said in a letter to Portland Mayor Sam Adams dated Wednesday that investigators will first talk to members of the police force before talking to community organizations and others.
Adams said Wednesday that Portland police are encountering more mentally ill people and people suffering from more severe illnesses than they did 20 years ago.
The announcement about the investigation comes a day after the Justice Department announced it would not prosecute Portland officers for violating the civil rights of Aaron Campbell, who was unarmed when police fatally shot him in the back as he ran away in January 2010.
Campbell, who was distraught over the death of his brother, was drinking and threatening suicide at his Portland apartment. Police were called, and he was killed in the confrontation. His mother, Marva Davis, said Wednesday that she didn’t think the incident cast a pall over the entire department.
“There’s some good police officers out there, and there’s some bad ones,” she said.
Perez said the investigation announced Wednesday will be associated with another Justice Department investigation into Oregon’s mental-health infrastructure and allegations that institutionalized people are victims of civil-rights violations.
“If you indeed can build a mental-health infrastructure in which people can receive effective treatment in the community,” Perez said, “you can ensure that county jails and the criminal justice system and emergency rooms do not become the treatment of first resort and only resort.”
Tom Steenson, an attorney representing both Chasse and Campbell’s families in lawsuits against the police department, said Portland police have for too long shrugged off advisory groups and consultants who have said the department has inadequate rules for investigating deadly force by officers.
A 2005 report by the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center found that Portland Police Bureau internal investigations were inadequate to determine whether officer actions were tactically sound during shootings or in dealing with suspects in custody.
In April 2010, the police bureau launched a Mobile Crisis Unit that features a full-time officer patrolling with a mental-health expert. The goal of the unit is to have the pair help de-escalate situations with the mentally ill before they turn violent.
The Justice Department investigation is expected to last about 18 months.