from The Oregonian
Letters to the Editor Training: Help cops deal with mentally ill
In Maxine Bernstein’s front-page article, “Potter wants crisis-trained cops” (Oct. 31), Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, is quoted as saying, “Until our community gets serious about helping the mentally ill, it won’t matter how much training we have.” He is later described as skeptical regarding a police officer’s ability to differentiate between a mentally ill person in crisis and a person intoxicated on drugs or alcohol.
King’s statements undermine the value of the specific skills that Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) teaches police officers, to help them interact with people with mental illnesses.
These skills include non-threatening ways to gather key information, types of negotiation and de-escalation, and anticipating how a person with a mental illness who is in crisis may respond to body language. These skills are particularly important because in many instances, people with mental illnesses also have problems with alcohol and drug use, and both problems may be in play in a single interaction.
Independent studies in Memphis and other cities nationwide have shown that CIT officers divert more people with mental illnesses from jails and help them to access mental-health resources.
DANIEL HELFET-HILLIKER, M.D.
I note the tragic juxtaposition of two recent news stories, about James P. Chasse Jr. and Kam Shing Chan, who has a murder conviction and is now accused of trying to set people on fire in a Salem church. These troubled men might seem unrelated, except for their mental illnesses. Yet their cases are a miserable microcosm of the dilemma police officers face every day.
Our society allows mentally ill people to run loose on the streets when they should be in secure treatment centers. And our collective hypocrisy expects cops to deal with them through some magical combination of psychic divination and the wisdom of Solomon.
Every time a James P. Chasse Jr. dies in a street confrontation, we erupt in an orgy of second-guessing, finger-pointing and condemnation. Meanwhile, most cops grit their teeth and consider us well-meaning fools who don’t know what we’re talking about.
In the vernacular of the streets, whenever a cop has to confront someone acting “crazy,” he is wondering if this one is delusional, but basically harmless; or a homicidal maniac.
Think fast, John Q. Citizen! The wrong answer could get a sharpened screwdriver plunged into your neck because the mentally ill person thinks you’re the anti-Christ. Unfortunately, such split-second decisions sometimes have tragic consequences. And it’s way too easy to blame the cops.
How are officers supposed to treat the mentally ill? (“Police vs. mentally ill: time to change the whole approach,” Nov. 1). I believe officers should use force if their lives are in immediate danger.
We grant officers this right because we recognize that their job is dangerous. In James P. Chasse Jr.’s case, he was a mentally ill schizophrenic who endangered nobody’s life, and in return lost his own.
I’ve seen how mentally ill people are treated as criminals, and it’s not only tough, but it makes me sick. Mentally ill people need special attention and need to be approached differently. The Portland Police Bureau needs to realize this and train its officers accordingly.
Regarding Mayor Tom Potter’s desire for Portland police to receive training in mental illness recognition (“Potter wants crisis-trained cops,” Oct. 31), this is beyond the scope of a field officer’s duties.
They are not doctors or psychologists. They are there to keep the peace and enforce the laws. Portland Police Association President Robert King is correct in that to expect officers to recognize the difference between a person on drugs or alcohol and a psychotic person is an “unreasonable expectation,” and it could cause the death or injury of an officer.
GARY S. SMITH
Retired police officer
Los Angeles Police Department