Heeding calls by advocates to find new ways to keep police officers and public-safety dispatchers out of the very touchy suicide-response business, this fall Portland officials are moving forward with yet another initiative meant to divert mental-health calls from 911.
On Wednesday, August 29, Portland City Council was expected to spend $150,000 to shore up the suicide prevention services offered by Lines for Life (formerly known as the Oregon Partnership). The six-month program will help the nonprofit roll out a new hotline that government officials, ministers, and leaders in the queer community will all promote as the first and best number to call—not 911—for someone in crisis.
Final details will be released in a few more weeks—just in time to mark Suicide Prevention Awareness Month—and skeptics already are coming forward. But if the project is successful, it could prompt even deeper changes in the way suicide calls are handled in Portland.
“The hope is people will call this number instead of 911,” says Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the city’s 911 dispatchers and who helped push for the grant along with Mayor Sam Adams. “Their staff and volunteers have extensive training in risk assessment and counseling. Our operators get some training, but not nearly to the same extent.”
The shift comes as traditional safety-net services for the mentally ill unravel in the face of budget cuts, contributing to a doubling, just over the past decade, in the number of suicide calls handled by Portland police. The perils of that dynamic came into focus earlier this year when Portland police officers wound up shooting a suicidal man atop a downtown parking garage.
Lines for Life claims that 98 percent of its calls—more than 17,000 last year—are solved without help from cops. Tom Parker, a spokesman for the nonprofit, says that’s because its volunteers can do things that 911 dispatchers can’t do: take calls that involve a weapon or the prospect of imminent harm, and spend as long as it takes until a call “de-escalates.” Lines for Life also can accept text messages and has specialists on hand if someone like, say, a veteran calls and threatens suicide.
“By us picking up the slack, with the city pointing more people in our direction,” says Parker, “we can do what we’re really effective at. It’s not a timed phone call. We’d talk as long as you needed us to talk.”
All that said, the project isn’t without detractors. Some advocates worry the city will send mixed signals about where people in crisis—or loved ones worried about them—should turn.
The city is already in the midst of a separate 911 experiment, advocates note. Under that project, when suicide calls do come to 911, dispatchers are supposed to send the “non-threatening” ones over to Multnomah County’s crisis call center. County and city officials both confirm that hundreds of calls have been diverted from 911 to the county since that program started on May 30. Meanwhile, the police bureau also has tentative plans to create its own mental health reporting unit.
“We need one number that people in crisis can call for immediate, knowledgeable information. We just put a lot of time and energy into making a go of the county program,” says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. “This sounds like a competitive, confusing scenario.”
City officials, including the mayor, agree the goal should be one suicide hotline number. It could be, however, that the city is already thinking of ending its 911 relationship with the county. Which would leave the Lines for Life project as the city’s main focus.
David Austin, a spokesman for Multnomah County, says it’s too early to draw conclusions about the success of the program after just a few months. Both sides are supposed to step back in November and see if they want to deepen the relationship. But sources in city hall tell the Mercury that officials are cooling on the arrangement.
Fritz says the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications would review both projects next year. Asked about the chance that 911 dispatchers would also start sending calls to Lines for Life instead of the county, she wouldn’t rule it out.
“We may eventually get to that,” she says. For now, “we’re seeing how it works out. Next year, we can modify all of our protocols.”