At one time the nation’s most severely mentally ill were locked up in mental hospitals, often against their will. Now they wander our streets.
That’s how it seems to many law enforcement officers these days as they spend more and more of their time dealing with people in crisis.
“It’s much more common than people think,” said Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston. “My officers see mental illness daily, if not hourly.”
When someone in crisis endangers themselves or others, officers must take action. Sometimes that means getting the person evaluated by a professional or hauling him or her to jail. Other times, they use words to persuade or soothe and de-escalate.
Most of the time, the interactions end peacefully, but officers likely will see the person again — maybe even later that day.
The interactions have almost endless variation: A person lying on a city street, getting aggressive, urinating in a public place, hallucinating, in the grip of a suicidal depression or causing a multitude of other scenarios that range from simply strange to severely dangerous.
On a recent day, Pendleton Police Officer Shelly Studebaker stopped her patrol car to chat with a man who stood on a traffic island at the confluence of Frazer and Emigrant Avenues. He was gesturing at the traffic and fixated on a truck parked across the busy street on the gravel beside the Interstate 84 onramp. With some conversation, Studebaker learned he was fretting that someone would run into the vehicle. She soothed his worries and the man walked away.
Studebaker is one of a growing number of police officers who have completed Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to hone their street-counselor skills. At the week-long course, she learned the basics of behavioral health and an array of de-escalation techniques.
“It’s taking time to talk to people and connecting on a personal basis,” Studebaker said. “If we can come to a positive conclusion, it establishes trust and saves time later.”
Sometimes, though, the situation is simply beyond the reach of communication skills.
On New Year’s Eve of 2012, a man named Greg Shafer robbed the Hermiston branch of Community Bank. Instead of stashing the loot in a bag, Shafer tossed some money into the air on his way out of the bank, leaving a trail as he crossed the road to the liquor store where he cut to the front of the line to purchase an expensive bottle of whiskey and a cigar. Liquor store video shows him tossing more money as he catches sight of a police officer through the window. As two Hermiston officers enter the store, Shafer draws what looks like a semiautomatic handgun (actually a BB gun) and points it at the officers. They fire five shots. Shafer slumps to the floor. He died later that night.
Most interactions are less serious, but the sheer number of them are taking their toll. The Pendleton Police Department tracks calls for service involving mental illness and has experienced a steady uptick — about 160 percent — in the past five years.
Police have become first-line responders, said Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts. The job is often a frustrating one. Options are limited. Many times a mentally ill person ends up in jail on charges of disorderly conduct or trespassing.
“Jails are not a place for a person with mental illness,” Roberts said. “Jails aren’t set up to deal with that population, but you know while they are there, they’ll be safe and the community will be safe.”
Others are evaluated by psychiatric professionals in a hospital setting, but only the most severe end up being committed to state care — the majority end up back on the streets. Then they become mired in court appearances and fines.
“We put them on a merry-go-round and we spin it,” he said. “Every time they are released from jail or go back to jail, it’s another spin. Pretty soon it’s spinning so hard they can’t get off.”
With so much mental instability on the streets, law enforcement officers are ready for anything.
“They never know what they’re getting into on any particular call,” Edmiston said. “They have no clue what might be on board chemically and what’s going on mentally. They have to rely on intuition and training to kick in.”
One option in Umatilla County is the Pendleton Creek Crisis Recovery Center, a five-bed facility run by Lifeways on Westgate where people having a mental crisis can recover in a calm environment. Police can bring people or they can come on their own. Admittance is voluntary, though, and the place isn’t set up to deal with those under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Up until about the mid-1990s, things were different, Roberts said. Officers in this area could drive people in crisis to the now-defunct Blue Mountain Recovery Center.
“Residential folks were upstairs and there was a detox center in the basement. A staff member would meet us at the back door, take (the mentally ill individual) in and a psychiatrist would evaluate the person on the spot,” Roberts said. “That was much more efficient than what we’ve evolved to today.”
Drugs and alcohol are a complicating factor and so interwoven, Roberts said. Substance abuse can trigger mental illness or be a symptom. It’s chicken or egg — which came first, he said.
“Mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction — a lot of professionals will look at that and say it’s all mental illness,” Roberts said. “Oregon looks at it as two separate issues and deals with them accordingly with different agencies.”
Another hitch is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a privacy rule that prevents mental health providers from sharing patient information with law enforcement, said both Edmiston and Roberts. Other barriers come from courts and other agencies. Both chiefs wish everyone could just get out of their silos and join together to work toward a holistic solution.
“All service providers are running the same race, but in different lanes,” Roberts said. “It should be a relay. It should be a baton pass from beginning to end. Instead, we’re walking on each other and pointing fingers.”
There is something of an urban-rural divide as far as resources for officers and mentally ill people on the streets.
“In Portland, they have resources and mechanisms we don’t have,” Roberts said. “They have the practitioners and professionals — they can do those handoffs.”
Edmiston admits feeling frustrated and abandoned at times.
“The bottom line is there seems to be this push with legislators at the state and federal level to push more and more onto first responders,” Edmiston said. “When things go bad, law enforcement is the first to get blamed.”
Roberts sees no quick fix.
“Everything keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger and has so many layers,” Roberts said. “I think people look at it and say that is such a big issue — we don’t know how or where to attack it.”