Medford police trained how to better respond to mentally ill

Medford Tribune, October 5, 2014

When Medford police are asked during special training whether they’ve ever had a loved one affected by mental illness, half to three-quarters raise their hands.

Lt. Curtis Whipple said officers are surprised when they see how many of their colleagues have personally dealt with mental illness.

index“Mental illness is like a dirty little secret. We need to get it out in the open and treat it like you do diabetes or heart disease,” Whipple said.

The question about mental illness launches an intensive week of Crisis Intervention Training for Medford police and other local law enforcement personnel working in Jackson County.

In the past, Medford and Ashland police had to travel to Utah and California for specialized training on dealing with mentally ill people.

But within the past year, Jackson County Mental Health Services has held three local CIT academies and is about to start its fourth. The goal is to certify all law enforcement personnel in the county within three years, said Mental Health Division Manager Stacy Brubaker.

Police learn how to respond to mentally ill people in a positive, less threatening way. They listen to presentations about mental illnesses, talk to mentally ill people and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and their families, visit a psychiatric care unit at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, practice responding to different scenarios and take a certification test, Whipple said.

“It’s great for police and patients to have conversations,” Brubaker said.

At the end of the upcoming CIT academy, more than half of Medford police officers will be trained, Whipple said.

And the training couldn’t come too soon, he noted.

The Medford Police Department is dealing with a surge of situations involving mental illness.

In 2010, police took 196 people to the psychiatric care unit at RRMC. In 2013, they took 480 people to the center, Whipple said.

Police responded to 204 incidents involving threatened, attempted or actual suicides in 2010, then watched the number of incidents surge to 478 in 2013, he said.

Referrals to Jackson County Mental Health Services soared from 363 in 2010 to 824 in 2013, Whipple said.

So far this year, the number of people taken to the psychiatric unit is up 13 percent, suicide incidents rose 23 percent and referrals for mental health services increased 27 percent, he said.

“We deal with it every day. It’s not like an every-now-and-then thing. It’s every day. That’s why it’s imperative people have training,” he said.

The stakes can be life or death when handling calls involving people with mental illness. Police sometimes are not able to de-escalate a situation despite additional training.

On Aug. 24, Medford police shot and killed 52-year-old Marine Corps veteran Stephen Andrew McMilon after he pointed a shotgun at an officer. The entire incident with police unfolded in about two minutes. A grand jury found the shooting was justified because fellow police were protecting the officer.

McMilon, who friends said suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, had been walking down the street brandishing weapons. He was armed with three guns and 232 rounds of ammunition.

Police had been called to his house 14 times since August 2013, including earlier that day when there was a report of a shot fired, according to Medford police Chief Tim George.

Whipple said police don’t know whether it’s the economy, drug use, a lack of mental health care or other factors leading to surges in situations involving mental illness — although they do know Jackson County isn’t alone.

“Law enforcement everywhere is trying to find a fix,” Whipple said.

Brubaker said Medford police have embraced taking county mental health workers out on calls to help mentally ill people. She said she has received phone calls from family members who are thankful for how police dealt with mentally ill loved ones.

The CIT training is helping officers understand what mentally ill people are going through and how to help them, Whipple said.

“Officers who’ve been on the job for decades say it’s the best training they’ve ever had and they wish they could have had it years ago,” he said.