Trial likely for police mental health lawsuit

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PORTLAND — A federal judge said Thursday that he expects a lawsuit against the Portland Police Bureau over its treatment of the mentally ill to begin next summer.

The lawsuit came after a 15-month U.S. Department of Justice review of the bureau’s practices and procedures, which included its use of stun guns on people who had been determined to be suffering from a mental health crisis. The findings showed a pattern of excessive force.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon set several deadlines for written arguments in the matter. He envisions a trial next summer if the sides can’t reach an agreement.

The city of Portland has accepted the Justice Department findings and said it would implement them, but the police union intervened, saying the changes undermine collective bargaining rights.

The city has agreed to hire a compliance officer to ensure the agreement is followed and form a community oversight board. That body, which will be chaired by the compliance officer, will include 15 voting members and five advisory panelists.

At Thursday’s hearing, the city and Justice Department announced they had reached an agreement with a Portland church group that has been granted “friend of the court” status in the case.

Under the agreement, the Albina Ministerial Alliance will be granted a role in the selection process of the advisory board and compliance officer.

The proposed settlement between the city, the Justice Department and the union is complicated by the expiration of the union’s collective bargaining agreement. Simon said he does not believe he can rule on the settlement before the contract is renewed.

“Case law (is) pretty clear that I simply can’t approve a settlement agreement that affects rights under a (collective bargaining agreement),” he said.

The city and police union have been negotiating since the contract expired June 30.

Among the incidents that drew federal attention was the 2010 case of Aaron Campbell. Police had been called to do a welfare check on him because he was thought to be suicidal and shot him in the back while he ran away. A review of the incident after his death exonerated the officers, even though Campbell was unarmed.

In recent years, the city has paid settlements to the families of Campbell and James P. Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who died in police custody in 2006.

The Justice Department investigation listed several examples in which officers used stun guns without justification against people who were later determined to have some kind mental health problem at the time. The police bureau’s new policy limits the use of stun guns on people suffering from mental illness and prohibits their use on handcuffed suspects.

It encourages officers to attempt to handcuff suspects rather than subject them to repeated Taser shots.

The city also must create a crisis-intervention team, expand its mobile crisis units from a single vehicle to one vehicle per precinct and complete investigations of officer misconduct within 180 days.

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