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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

EDITORIAL: Homeless, possibly mentally ill, shot dead

A tragic and terribly familiar path leads to another fatal shooting by Portland police

Here we go again. Investigators, the news media, the public will scrutinize every second, every choice, every move made by the two Portland police officers who shot dead a homeless man who apparently came at them with a knife Sunday afternoon.

All the focus, all the questions will be about the last moments of the man's life. Why didn't he follow their commands to drop the knife? Why didn't the Taser fired by police stop him? Did police have no other choice but to use lethal force? Why the four-hour delay in reporting the shooting to the public?

Of course, those questions need to be pursued. However, by now, after all the recent police shootings involving people on the street who had suffered from mental illness, Portlanders ought to know that focusing solely on the police response -- their training, their procedures, their decision-making -- only takes a community so far.

And it's not far enough.

Why not widen the lens, consider the years, months, days, minutes, before the officers confronted the homeless man at the abandoned carwash in Southeast Portland and pose hard questions too seldom asked: Why was he living on the streets? How long had he been homeless? Did social service agencies have prior contact with him? What was done, if anything, to find housing for him? Did he suffer from a mental illness? If so, had his illness ever been diagnosed or treated? Was he on medication? Was he taking it?

Moreover, what led him to twice threaten to kill a security guard at a business near the carwash? Had he ever made violent threats before? What set him off? What, if anything, did social workers, mental health professionals, anyone with any public agency, know about him? What had they done in response?

Again, this is not an argument against police accountability and thorough scrutiny of every police shooting. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that such tragic shootings will continue as long as Portland requires its police force to be the one -- and too often only -- response to the people that all of us see wandering the streets with untreated illnesses.

Sunday's shooting reminded us of a conversation we had with Police Chief Mike Reese shortly after his appointment to lead the Police Bureau last year. Reese talked about transforming police training from a "fear-based model" to one founded on "competency and confidence," where a mentally ill man isn't treated like a bank robber. He also pledged to continue a pilot program in which an officer is paired with a mental health care crisis worker to locate and get help to people who may have fallen through the mental health system or are off their medication.

Reese also described driving downtown with his wife and discovering a man standing in the middle of a street raging at the trees in the Park Blocks. "Give him a lot of room," he advised his wife, who was driving.

And that, in one sentence, describes what this city, what all of us, have too often done with the homeless and mentally ill. We keep our distance, we give them a whole city of room, until something snaps, a threat is made, a weapon is displayed.

And then we send in the police to confront them and their illness.

There has to be a better way.

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