This is an article I wrote for the Oregonian, and they published it. You can read the whole article here
Police and the mentally ill: Cops have a right to self-defense
By James Wolfer
Portland Chief Mike Reese announced last week his desire to transform police training, saying that he wants to transform it from a " 'fear-based model' -- where officers are taught to think a motorist reaching toward a floorboard is going for a gun -- to one founded on 'competency and confidence' -- where a mentally ill man isn't treated like a bank robber."
First, I'd like to say how much respect I have for the new police chief. He sure has his work cut out for him in that revolving door that is the chief's position in the Portland Police Bureau. And while there is definitely room for improvement in police training with regard to the mentally ill, removing the "fear-based training" model altogether would be disastrous.
The police need to assume, for their own survival, that someone reaching might be reaching for a gun. Police deaths are up nationally. According to statistics available from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, officer deaths in 2009 were 42 percent higher than in 2008 across the board in the U.S., with 80 percent of those deaths resulting from gunfire. Statistics are not yet available for 2010, but it seems that almost every week an officer is killed somewhere in the country. Some of those shootings have happened here in the Northwest. How quickly we've forgotten the four officers assassinated in Lakewood, Wash., just last December. Even here in Portland, people, some of them mentally ill, have attempted to fight police with deadly weapons. While some are protesting the police "profiling" and killing of Otis Keane, many in the public fail to address the fact that Keane shot first. He shot an officer in the legs, twice, before being fatally shot by the other officers involved. Thankfully, the officer survived, but what would have happened if he had not? Would the public have been appeased? I doubt it. Most likely, there would still be protests against the police for killing their attacker.
The Portland Police Bureau could use more training in dealing with the mentally ill. But the Portland-area public also is in dire need of education on what happens when someone, mentally ill or not, tries to use deadly force against the police: the officers will defend themselves with deadly force. The police have a lawful right to self-defense, to survive an attack and go home to their family at the end of the day, regardless of the attacker's mental state.
James Wolfer lives in Southwest Portland.
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