A Cop Shop Under Siege

If a mentally ill man – armed with a weapon or just his fists, legs and deranged anger – had burst into the meeting hall where the Community Oversight Advisory Board recently gathered, there’s no doubt who would have been expected to deal with him.

The police.

Five Portland police officers are on the 20-member Community Oversight Advisory Board. Although the officers don’t have voting privileges – they are, after all, the ones being subjected to oversight – they attend the meetings. Usually a couple more cops are sitting in the audience. At the Nov. 12th meeting Chief Larry O’Dea was present for a while.

One of the audience regulars – Dan Handelman of Portland CopWatch – was also present. Would Handelman, a long-time critic of the police, try to negotiate with someone threatening violence? Or would he figure that’s what the cops are paid to do? But they better not hurt anyone, and they better not refer to anybody as a mental case. That’s profiling.

The Portland Police Bureau is under a federal court order to change how it interacts with the mentally ill, after an investigation found the department has engaged in excessive force. According to a settlement agreement last year, Portland has five years to meet various requirements, including changes in training, policies and oversight. This is where the Community Oversight Advisory Board comes in.

Other settlement agreements across the country have involved a court-appointed monitor or a member of the Justice Department to act as oversight. Not Portland, Ore.

The state of Oregon and the city of Portland love task forces. Everybody gets to have a say (respectfully, of course). In reality, opinions are like you-know-what, and everybody’s got one.

“Fuck this!” declared Teressa Raiford, of Don’t Shoot Portland, when she thought the police had hijacked one of the first meetings with a presentation on their positive activities.

Shortly after that meeting, the chairman – retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz – resigned citing alleged “health” issues. Smart move.

This task force has become a divisive force. There’s an air of tribalism to this board, where every presumed “protected class” or self-declared community within the community has to be represented because nobody else can possibly understand their needs, wants and rights.

Because there are so many members, it’s logistically difficult for the chair – even a former chief justice – to run the meetings. As it is, the member representing the deaf community needs two translators at each meeting, so that’s two more bodies at the table. How many deaf people live in Portland, and how often do they interact with police? Is it necessary to have a deaf person on the community board – or is this simply tokenism?

Media interest in the Community Oversight Advisory Board has dwindled. The earlier meetings attracted publicity and turnout. One of the better, recent stories about the board was by Emily Green in the Portland weekly, Street Roots, distributed by homeless vendors. That story looked at why some members of the police oversight board were quitting.

It quotes former member Sharon Maxwell, who is black, complaining that the board was set up to fail. With members like her, possibly so. I encountered Maxwell a couple of years ago at a meeting of Race Talks 2, sponsored by Portland Public Schools’ Office of Equity, where she sought to educate me on why the word “gangstah” was not negative. Her son has been in prison so it’s not surprising she would want to see it that way.

It could be that what bothered Maxwell was that the focus of the police oversight board was on the mentally ill – not blacks. At the June 25th meeting I attended, the board meeting was interrupted by a Black Lives Matter protest.

Perhaps Maxwell and some of the other members came on board thinking they were going to have the power to get back at the cops. As earlier news accounts noted, many of the members chosen for the oversight board were racial or sexual minorities who’d had previous encounters with police. That hardly makes for objectivity.

It didn’t help when Mayor Charlie Hales and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz lavished high expectations on board members. Fritz even told the Portland Tribune the board “would make Portland a safer place for people experiencing mental illnesses.”

Board members were given a huge ego stroke by attorney Jonas Geissler of the U.S. Department of Justice who called their process “innovative” and said they were playing a role that could change policing nationally.

Now there is growing discontent among board members because they are not even paid.

The latest meeting, held at Portland Community College’s Southeast Center Campus, was a prolonged, dreary affair punctuated by the smell of Ranch salad dressing. Held in the school’s Community Hall, the members and ancillary staff were situated around long tables that formed a square U, with the audience seated at the open end, and behind them a table of deviled eggs, veggies and wrap sandwiches. The presence of food, with the audience grazing along with the board members, lent a casual air to the proceedings.

Much of the meeting was taken up with what’s referred to in public-meeting jargon as housekeeping – questions about procedures, bylaws and unresolved issues.

Kathleen Saadat, who replaced DeMuniz as chair of the board, gave an elaborate apology for … what? It was hard to tell.

Saadat apologized for her behavior at the Nov. 9 accountability sub-committee meeting “not for what I did but how I did it. … It complicated things and made people feel disrespected.” She also apologized for an e-mail exchange that put at risk the requirements regarding public meeting laws.

The sub-committee meetings are poorly attended by the public and even members of the board. Her apology made little sense and was a distraction.

No sooner had she finished apologizing, then member Se-ah-dom Edmo read “Guidelines for Maintaining Common Ground.”

The guidelines for common ground included do’s and don’ts like “share the air” and “avoid putdowns (even humorous ones)” and “recognize the legitimacy of people’s feelings.”

This was followed by more motions, some seconded, (in one case, “thirded”) some not seconded, some passing, some not regarding the definition of ratings in the quarterly report, whether a subcommittee without a quorum can make recommendations and whether the board should continue to file quarterly reports or move to semi-annual reports.

The third and last hour was devoted to a presentation by members of the Portland Police Bureau Behavioral Health Unit on how it trains for crisis intervention, and how it works with licensed mental health clinicians. By the time it concluded, the meeting was winding down, and there were 10 minutes left for questions.

Amidst this drawn-out affair a legitimate issue was raised by a couple of board members as well as audience regulars, Handelman of CopWatch and JoAnn Hardesty of the NAACP. They questioned a state medical examiner’s ruling earlier this month that a distraught man who was shot by police died by suicide.

Why wasn’t Michael Gregory Johnson’s death classified as a homicide since he was shot by another person, they asked.

The issue was not explored, and it’s too bad. It’s hard to have a credible discussion, however, if you have a history of denouncing the cops (as Handelman and Hardesty have), or if you’ve laid down so many ground rules about the appropriate way to communicate that almost anything you say can be construed by someone as being hurtful (which the oversight board has done).

The phrase “suicide by cop” has been around for more than two decades. The first time I used it as a reporter in the mid-1990’s, I remember a cop pointing out to me that cops do kill themselves and, properly speaking, that would be “a suicide by cop.” He suggested that perhaps a better term when someone who wants to die and threatens a cop into shooting him would be “police-assisted suicide.”

That this issue even exists says something about what cops, in particular, have to deal with. It’s the consequence of closing state mental institutions. Those closures weren’t made by police; they were the result of decades of political decisions by Republicans and Democrats, in some cases encouraged by mental health professionals.

Actually, we’re all living with those decisions – not just the cops. Yet too much of the work involving the mentally ill is protected by privacy laws. That’s unfortunate because it allows the “mental health professionals” to parcel out only what they want the public to know. What don’t they want people to know? A few things: how much attention and money can be spent on just one crazy person with negligible results; how little mental health professionals actually know about the mentally ill; how smart and calculating some of the mentally ill are.

This past summer a brief glimpse into this world was on display in a public hearing on Oregon’s north coast. It involved a woman diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic with Borderline Personality Disorder. She has been provided housing, along with a staff of mental health professionals stationed nearby to assist her 24/7. (The monthly cost exceeds $20,000. A group home for one?)

This woman has Hepatitis C, a contagious blood-borne illness, and likes to go into public restrooms and cut herself. When this happens, the mental health professionals call emergency personnel and police.

Imagine if a woman like this showed up at the Community Oversight Advisory Board. If she didn’t like the way the proceedings were going, she could whip out a cutting implement and go to work on a vein. Who in the meeting room would reach out to her?

Perhaps Dr. Rochelle Silver, a clinical psychologist, who has previously worked at Dammasch State Hospital and Oregon State Hospital. As a member of the oversight board she has counseled police to be more respectful to the mentally ill.

Her expertise may not be very helpful in the context of today’s policing. It’s one thing to work with the mentally in a controlled environment like a mental hospital; it’s another to deal with them in public where there are also bystanders and witnesses who may need protection.

Dammasch, like many state mental hospitals, has closed and been demolished. The drugs that psychiatric professionals in the 1960s and 1970s thought were going to cure mental illness didn’t work miracles after all. Even worse, substance abuse among the non-mentally ill has become epidemic. We now have self-induced mental illness.

Having a police department under siege won’t help public safety.

The one group that is not represented among the voting members of the Community Oversight Advisory Board is just ordinary Portlanders, trying to live and work peacefully, hoping they’ll never need the cops but want them available if needed. These everyday folks have been superseded by the noisier and better organized anti-cop contingent.

As it is, we are approaching a time when police won’t even be able to profile the mentally ill as “mentally ill.”

How insane is that?

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


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