By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday opened an investigation of complaints that police in Oregon's largest city often use excessive force to subdue or arrest suspects believed to be mentally ill.
The probe, announced in Portland by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the department's civil rights division, is the latest of 16 such inquiries now under way by the Obama administration in a dozen states and Puerto Rico, an agency spokeswoman said.
Other big-city police forces under similar investigations include New Orleans, Seattle and Newark, New Jersey.
"We are not here to fix the blame, we are here to fix the problem," Perez said of the investigation, requested by city officials.
"We more than welcome it, we asked for it," Mayor Sam Adams said at the same news conference.
In a formal written notice to the mayor, the Justice Department said its probe "will examine whether there is a pattern or practice of excessive force used by (police)officers, particularly against people living with mental illness."
Speaking to reporters, Perez cited "a significant increase" in shootings by police officers in Portland during the past 18 months, the majority of which he said involved individuals with psychiatric issues.
He pointed as an example to the January 2010 fatal shooting of Aaron Campbell, a man who was described by family members as suicidal and distraught over the death of a brother. Campbell was not armed and was shot in the back when confronted by police called to his home by concerned relatives.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors declined to bring a criminal civil rights case against police involved in the Campbell shooting.
Oregon's mental health system already is under a Justice Department civil rights investigation that began in 2006 with the probe of a single state mental hospital and was expanded last year.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)