Portland police using new ‘step back’ training to deal with people in mental health crisis

From the Oregonian, October 9, 2011

Portland police twice walked away from confronting a mentally-ill man who had alarmed neighbors in recent weeks in his Southwest Portland apartment complex by striding the halls armed with a rifle and shotgun, and screaming out his window wearing a gas mask and bulletproof vest.

It wasn’t until the man was seen pointing a rifle out his window at a neighbor and muttering “murderer’s apartment” that Portland police had a tactical team surround the complex and successfully coax him out after a six hour stand-off.

MORE – about what happened to John Griffin.

The go-slow, deliberative response marked a dramatic change in Portland police practice as the bureau strives to figure out how best to respond to calls involving people in mental health crisis.

“It is a big shift. This concept of maybe walking away has not been a typical response for law enforcement,” Central Precinct Cmdr. Robert Day said. “We tend to show up and see it finished all the way through. We got into this job to do the right thing and help people. We’re finding out more and more, when dealing with people in mental crisis, they may not be receptive to our help. So at what point do we force ourselves on them?”

The peaceful resolution of the Southwest Portland calls has been hailed as a prime example of the new approach’s effectiveness. Yet some mental health advocates and residents ask whether the bureau has swung too far to a hands-off response, potentially putting the public in danger.

Earlier this year, the bureau trained sergeants to consider not engaging people with mental health problems if they’re not an obvious threat to others, even if they’re suicidal and armed. The training, begun under Chief Mike Reese but the result of discussions former Chief Rosie Sizer initiated, may be expanded to officers.

Derald Walker, president of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, praised the police response to John L. Griffin, 50, described as paranoid and delusional in his Southwest Portland apartment. Walker is among a group of mental health experts and advocates meeting with police supervisors studying how to eliminate unnecessary police encounters with people suffering from mental illness through a grant by the non-profit Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. He’s had lengthy talks about how police should label the response.

“Walking away implies they’re leaving a situation, physically leaving and dropping the case,” Walker said. “It’s basically pulling back, stepping back, regrouping and accessing what the risks are, and I think this case illustrates this beautifully. Instead of rushing in with limited understanding of who they’re going to be face to face with, they decided to step back and gather more intelligence around how to predict the person’s behavior.”

Neighbors said Portland police and Washington County’s hostage negotiators and tactical officers – who were called out because Portland’s tactical unit was training out of town – displayed remarkable restraint when dealing with Griffin.

“I was amazed,” said Diana Corbett, Griffin’s friend and neighbor. “They were patient. They took their time. They handled it very well.”

Yet others wondered why police didn’t act earlier or summon someone with mental health experience to step in right away.

“If the police went out there, and this man was walking through the hallway with firearms, I think they should have taken him in for an evaluation,” said Margaret Brayden, executive director of the Multnomah County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s unfortunate, we have to wait for a crisis. Suppose, the next day he shoots 20 people in the street?”

Genevieve Mercantante, a third-floor resident in Griffin’s apartment complex who had trouble finding out what was going on when police surrounded the complex Sept. 29, said, “I wonder why the cops had to wait until he committed a crime?”

Day acknowledged it’s a difficult “balancing act,” and the decision to step back after the first two calls was not done without serious thought. After the first two calls, Griffin was back in his unit, refusing to come out but quiet. Police reached out to his family, girlfriend and mental health experts to get a court-ordered civil hold.

“The decision to walk away…is really based upon risk to the community versus reward,” Day said. “Neighbors were concerned, but it’s not something where there was a demand for action. Had we gone to that door and forced that confrontation, the conversation today would have been: ‘How come you didn’t wait?’ ”

Having a mental health worker approach Griffin, who was armed and paranoid, may have been too dangerous, Walker said.

Karl McDade, a retired Portland sergeant who led the bureau’s first crisis intervention team, said criticism of past police fatal shootings or violent struggles with the mentally ill, and the current federal probe into Portland police use of force involving people with mental illness, is probably making officers reluctant to engage.

“I think they’re apprehensive about all of the problems that have ensued,” McDade said. “The citizens have the right to complain about what police do, but when it gets to the point when police are hesitant to take action, it becomes a problem for everybody.”

Former Chief Rosie Sizer had the bureau review police response to suicidal people and consider less-tactical ways of approaching such calls, said Portland Lt. Dave Meyer. “The ultimate thing we want to avoid is using potentially lethal force against someone who is suicidal,” Meyer said. “She wanted us to consider, ‘Is what we’re doing, what we should be doing?”

In training this year, Meyer advised sergeants to collect information from neighbors, consider statements the person made and whether he or she committed a crime before deciding whether to engage or leave. Police are not legally required to take a person in for a mental health evaluation, but “may,” Meyer said.

If police leave the person alone, they’re told to alert Project Respond, or the bureau’s mobile mental crisis officer, who is paired with a mental health worker, for follow-up.

The bureau hasn’t adopted a policy that officers should walk away from people in mental health crisis, but it should be an option if supervisors determine the public is not at risk and resources are provided to the person in crisis, Meyer said.

“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way,” Meyer said. “Our response should be based on the individual circumstances of a call.”

Earlier this year, police and firefighters responded to a call on an unresponsive, suicidal woman with knives in a Southwest Portland apartment. City housing authority managers and firefighters entered the unit, but police backed away as not to incite her. At one point, firefighters yelled to police, “Take action!” when the woman got up holding knives. Police ended up firing their Tasers at the woman and took her to a hospital for evaluation.

Walker, of Cascadia, recommends that a mental health specialist be at the scene of such a call to advise public safety, and one agency take the lead.

Griffin, who pleaded not guilty Friday to unlawful use of a weapon, pointing a firearm at another person and menacing, remains jailed on $1 million bail after a prosecutor argued he was a danger to the community. Experts suspect he suffered a psychotic break, possibly schizophrenia, due to stress. He lived in his Southwest Portland apartment complex for more than a decade, and held a temporary/seasonal job at Oregon Zoo between April 2006 and November 2009.

“I think putting him in a jail or prison for any extended period of time is not doing anyone any good,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, this is the only way he’ll get the treatment he needs, mandated through the criminal justice system.”