Police Action: There Must Be A Better Way

From The Oregonian, August 25, 1994

By Margie Boule.

He was the kind of man you notice from a distance and something inside you tenses up. He was old, but to me he didn’t seem old and harmless. He seemed old and menacing. Suddenly, he stepped in front of me on the sidewalk and stopped.

Margie Boule

Margie Boule

So did I, startled.

He was talking to me, in a rough, low voice, saying words that sounded like they’d been ripped from his throat, not spoken. They were ugly words, threatening words.

I did a quick backstep and made my escape. My heart was pounding.

As I walked back to work I thought: This is what we do with mentally ill people in Oregon. We close the hospitals, and we send them to live on the streets, where they don’t take their medicine, where they frighten people, where they occasionally hurt others or themselves.

It’s partly true, I’ve learned since then.

Oregon is in the middle of a program of deinstitutionalization. That’s more than just a word that could clinch a game of Scrabble. It’s a systematic release of mentally ill people from large hospitals, such as Dammasch, to smaller facilities where they get treatment and medication.

So those who are obviously a threat to themselves or others are being cared for in Oregon.

It’s the others who’ve fallen through the cracks. Right now, our culture — and our state — is struggling with a difficult choice: If it’s unclear whether mentally ill people are threats, do you commit them against their wishes, or do you let them roam the streets?

Mental illness is, after all, the only illness in which one of the preferred treatments is to take away the patient’s right to freedom. Can you force people into confinement when they haven’t committed any crime? Can you force them into treatment, when they don’t want it? Can you force them to take strong drugs, often with serious side effects, against their will?

For the moment, the law favors freedom. It’s very, very tough to get someone committed to a mental institution in Oregon.

That means there are many people who could use help, who aren’t getting it — or aren’t getting enough. I would guess the man I met on the street is one of them. I would guess Janet Marilyn Smith, the woman who was shot at the Fred Meyer store in Gresham on Sunday, was another.

And because they are on the streets, and because the police often have to deal with the mentally ill, our society needs to take a hard look at how we want police officers to deal with sick people.

Because there must be a way for five police officers, wearing bullet-proof vests, armed with Mace and guns, to disarm a 5’4” confused woman with a 6-inch knife without killing her. There must be.

On Wednesday, Paul Poitras, president of the Gresham Police Officers Association, explained the Gresham police reacted because Ms. Smith was directly threatening the public. He would not give more specifics. An internal investigation will be conducted. A grand jury will hear testimony.

In the end, I won’t be surprised if the panels and the juries and the committees decide the officer who killed the woman acted appropriately. But I doubt they’ll persuade me of that. You see, I don’t think the police are the right folks to deal with sick people.

All over the metropolitan area, there are professionals who’ve been trained in crisis intervention for the mentally ill.

In this kind of situation, I don’t think the police should act until a mental health professional is on the scene. The Portland police have a contract with a local mental health agency, in case this kind of situation arises. But the call is not automatic. It’s up to the officers on the scene to decide whether a mental health professional will be called. Gresham police have no such contract.

Sunday in that Fred Meyer store, store personnel dealt with the mentally ill woman quietly and well before the police arrived, maced the woman and then shot her when she came at them with her knife.

“I think the police in Gresham overreacted,” Sandra Milius said to me this week. Sandra is the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Oregon. “I think the message is, if” a mentally ill person “is out of control, you don’t want the police involved. And you can quote me on that.”

Gresham police officers feel wronged and angry about criticism of Sunday’s shooting. The officer was doing only what he was trained to do, several officers told me this week.

Exactly my point. Maybe the Gresham police should deal with criminals and let mental health professionals deal with the mentally ill. If they’d been on the scene Sunday, maybe the woman who called “Help me!” for so long in that grocery store might actually have been given help.