Portland police have selected about 50 officers who volunteered to be part of a new specialized unit to respond to mental health crisis calls.
The new unit is one of the initiatives that federal justice investigators last year urged the bureau to adopt to improve police encounters with people suffering from mental illness.
The U.S. Department of Justice found last year that Portland police engaged in a pattern of excessive force against people with mental illness.
The Portland officers assigned to the bureau’s Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team will remain on patrol but become the go-to responders on mental health crisis calls.
While all Portland patrol officers have received 40 hours of crisis intervention training, this group will receive an additional 40 hours over four days next month that’s based on input from mental health agencies and consumers.
The training will include classroom instruction, role-playing, tours of mental health facilities and a panel discussion with people living with mental illness and their family members.
Central Precinct Officer Amy Bruner-Denhart, who joined the bureau 8-1/2 yrs ago, will serve as the team coordinator.
“We have high hopes that when someone is a volunteer, they’ll be perhaps more familiar and more able to react in a highly supportive manner,” said Terri Walker, board president of the Multnomah County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Police have also created the Behavioral Health Coordination Team, with police meeting twice a month with representatives of mental health care agencies. Together, they identify the city’s most vulnerable citizens who have been the subject of repeated police calls or are considered a heightened danger to refer them to appropriate treatment.
“Our hope is we can plug the right person with the right agency,” Central Precinct Cmdr. Bob Day said Tuesday.
Lt. Cliff Bacigalupi said the Behavioral Health Coordination Team is modeled after the bureau’s existing Service Coordination Team, which works to connect repeat low-level offenders with alcohol treatment and housing.
The Behavioral Health Coordination Team meets every other Friday, drawing representatives from agencies such as Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Transition Projects and Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services, along with a new county prosecutor assigned to mental health cases and county jail medical staff.
Laura Maurer, the county’s deputy district attorney assigned since September to work on mental health matters, said she attends the meetings to help police or mental health care providers navigate legal matters that might arise. She also works to educate officers and others on what’s needed for civil commitment hearings.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice urged the bureau to return to a specialized group of officers who have the desire, crisis intervention training and skills to work with people suffering from mental illness. The federal review found Portland’s crisis training sorely lacked key components: “live exposure” to mental health consumers and family members, role-playing scenarios and community collaboration.
Portland police had adopted the Memphis model in 1995, creating a specialized team of volunteer officers to respond to crisis calls after the 1992 Portland police shooting of Nathan Thomas, a 12-year-old held hostage by a mentally ill man with a knife. Portland police started it with 60 officers who volunteered for the 40-hour training and, within 18 months, grew to 185 officers.
But the bureau veered away from the voluntary training and required that all officers be trained in 2007. The switch came after the controversial 2006 death in police custody of James P. Chasse Jr., who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
Shannon Pullen, interim executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Multnomah chapter, is co-chairing a new advisory committee for the police bureau’s Behavioral Health Unit. It has met twice this year and includes members of Central City Concern, Volunteers of America, Cascadia, Disability Rights Oregon and mental health consumers.
Pullen said she’s excited that police are engaging a diverse group of people who work in the mental health field. The advisory panel will sit in on next month’s enhanced crisis intervention training and is coordinating a panel to address the officers.
“It’s what the community has wanted,” Pullen said. “My mantra is engagement. We can only work better together and try to see the issue from each other’s point of view. And, hopefully, it’ll result in better outcomes.”