Judge adds new conditions to rein in violent police in Portland | Courthouse News Service
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Judge adds new conditions to rein in violent police in Portland

Police violence in Portland against people with mental illness has increased despite federal oversight, according to a new study submitted in court documents.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Portland must move forward with negotiations over police body cameras and hire a civilian to oversee police training, among other efforts to bring the city back into compliance with a federal settlement over the violent policing of people perceived to be mentally ill, after a judge on Friday approved a federal request for the additional provisions to the settlement agreement.

In February last year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the city was again out of compliance with requirements under a federal agreement. That was because of a summer of extreme violence, when the police murder of George Floyd launched historic protests against police brutality and police in Portland responded with over 6,000 incidents of police force.

Just a few months before the protests began, the city had managed to achieve “substantial compliance” with its settlement of a 2012 lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice over its finding that PPB has a pattern and practice of using excessive force against people police perceive as mentally ill.

In compliance or not, police have continued to use force against people who might be mentally ill at rates that have increased slightly since settlement negotiations began, according to a new study submitted to the court by amici Mental Health Alliance.

Data scientist and epidemiologist Jonathan Betz Brown found that police use of severe force has also increased since 2017, and rose “quickly and steadily over the last four years.”

“These results were pretty disappointing,” Betz Brown said Friday.

The process was also marred by revelations in another case, where protesters sued the city over violent policing during the racial justice protests of 2020. In that case, attorneys were set to file a motion for class certification, which included a training slide used by police during the protests — the final slide in a PowerPoint presentation.

The slide shows a riot cop with a fist raised to hit an apparent protester, with a twisted prayer typed over the image: “And the Lord said… Woe be unto you, dirty hippy: for thou stinketh of pachouli and BO; For though talk of Marx, yet know him not; For thou has bills, yet have not paid; For thou hast dreadlocks and white skin. And so I shall send among you, My humble servants with hat, and with bat; That they may christen your heads with hickory, and anoint your faces with pepper spray. And once thou hast been cuffed and stuffed; Once though has been stitched and bandaged; Perhaps thou shall learn, I’m tired of your shit. Amen."

But the city itself released the slide in January, on the day before the plaintiffs in that case filed their motion for class certification. The plaintiffs had planned to include the training slide as an exhibit to the motion.

City attorney Robert Taylor told U.S. District Judge Michael Simon on Friday that the city had known about the slide since September, but withheld it as evidence in both that case and in the case over its compliance with the federal settlement.

“I got that wrong,” Taylor said Friday. “And I take responsibility for that.”

J. Ashlee Albies, attorney for amici Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, said Taylor’s mea culpa addressed only the timing of the slide’s release, not its content.

“While I appreciate Mr. Taylor’s apology, it’s really about the fact that this slide deck existed and was used to train officers during the protests of 2020.”

Judge Simon said he, too, was ready to move beyond the timing.  

“We haven’t really even scratched below the surface about what it is and whether it’s a violation of the settlement agreement,” Simon said.

He added that those issues will be the subject of discussion in the case once the city’s internal investigation into the slide and related training materials concludes, and after the DOJ reviews the findings of that investigation.

Violation or not, the incident damaged the negotiations going on between hearings in the case, according to KC Lewis, managing editor for Disability Rights Oregon, and member of another amici in the case, Mental Health Alliance.

“This has really been a severe blow to our engagement, our trust and our ability to engage with the city on this piece,” Lewis said. “The city of Portland sat at the table and bargained with us. The entire time the city knew there was evidence that was highly relevant to this discussion.”

Ruling from the bench, Judge Simon on Friday approved an amendment that adds additional provisions to the original settlement agreement, such as requiring the city to eventually implement body worn cameras — an issue currently under negotiations between the city and the police union — requiring the city to hire someone outside the police bureau to oversee police training and penalizing the lieutenants who approved the use of force during the 2020 protests.

Multiple parties and community members who testified on Friday encouraged Simon to go further.

“If we continue to have eruptions and breaking of the settlement agreement, we must seriously look at a court appointed monitor as a remedy or a special master that could be appointed to establish oversite of the implementation of the settlement agreement.,” said Dr. LeRoy Haynes Jr., chairman of amici Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform.

Judge Simon repeatedly signaled interest in the idea.

“A special master or special court monitor would provide value,” Simon said. “It certainly is possible that one appropriate remedy would be the appointment of a court monitor.”

Haynes added that the issue must be resolved quickly.  

“The city is not prepared for another George Floyd or another controversial shooting,” Haynes said. “It is not a matter of if this will happen but when. We are committed and faithful to the belief that the Portland Police Bureau will one day become a police department that is accountable to the community. That it will one day do constitutional policing and policies and practices that are fair to all its citizens as well as being unbiased.”

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