Police Chief Rosie Sizer was quick to take credit when the city’s Independent Police Review Division reported last week that use of force against all citizens by Sizer’s officers had dropped from previous years.
“I think we started managing the issue better,” Sizer told The Oregonian.
But at the same time that City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade is embarking on what she says will be a months-long audit of the Police Bureau’s use of Tasers (as first reported July 15), one statistic buried on page 22 of the IPR’s 33-page report has some observers calling for closer scrutiny of the bureau.
That statistic: Subjects with mental illness are now the most likely out of all groups to get Tasered by Portland cops—even more than people who are actually armed or who assault an officer.
The IPR report, based on data from November 2007 to November 2008, shows 52 percent of subjects with mental illness who had force used against them got Tasered. Armed subjects, meanwhile, were Tasered slightly less, at 51 percent of the time. And those who assaulted an officer were Tasered 31 percent of the time.
Use of force in general against people with mental illness dropped 26 percent since the last period IPR reported on, which was August 2004 to October 2006. But despite that overall drop in force, which includes other methods like control holds and blunt strikes, reports of Taser use against subjects with mental illness rose 26.4 percent since the last IPR report.
Mental health advocates say they’ve long been concerned about reports of police using inappropriate Taser strikes against people with mental illness—whether out of convenience or a fear by police of touching the sick. Now they want more detailed information to determine what’s behind the rise in numbers.
“I find it hard to believe on the surface that this increase was somehow justified,” says Chris Bouneff, head of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “To me it signals that law enforcement hasn’t yet figured out how to deal with someone with a mental illness.”
While Bouneff admits it’s not always possible to recognize that someone is having a mental-health crisis, he says with proper training police can tell the difference more often and react more appropriately.
More than 300 Americans have died since 2001 after being Tasered by cops, according to Amnesty International. Because many of those people also suffered from mental illness, the human rights nonprofit has called for an end to Tasering the mentally ill except in cases where there’s a threat of serious injury to an officer.
Portland police policy, however, allows officers to Taser anyone who physically resists or shows that they intend to do so, regardless of their mental state.
The issue of police dealings with mentally ill people takes on greater resonance here after James Chasse Jr. died of blunt-force trauma following a violent encounter with police in 2006. The 42-year-old schizophrenic man was Tasered several times during the struggle, and advocates who pushed for reforms after Chasse’s death reject the notion that Tasers offer a more humane way for police to assert control.
“These statistics show us that what happened to James Chasse could happen tomorrow to someone else,” says Jason Renaud, a friend of Chasse’s and head of the Mental Health Association of Portland. “This seems to be a continuing problem where [police] don’t have the skills or the resources to do their job.”
Chasse’s death led to a new requirement for all Portland officers to receive crisis-intervention training. That training does not include instructions on Taser use or other tactical training, says police spokeswoman Detective Mary Wheat.
Sizer did not reply to a request for a phone interview. But in an email to WW, she said the people with mental illness police encounter are “more likely to be armed or more combative than other people against whom we are using force.” She added that police are looking forward to the opening of a new sub-acute mental health facility, which Multnomah County officials say is slated for 2012 or possibly sooner.“
FACT: The IPR report also found African-American subjects accounted for 29 percent of all use-of-force reports but only 25 percent of arrests—a difference the report calls statistically significant.