This Just Isn’t Working – Shooting Raises Question: Stop Sending Cops to Suicide Calls?

From the Portland Mercury, February 2, 2012

Bradley Lee Morgan called 911 at 3:17 am on Wednesday, January 25. The 21-year-old said he had a knife and had just robbed someone, and threatened to jump from a parking garage downtown. He also suggested, police say, that he wanted a cop to maybe shoot him instead.

Forty-four minutes later, at 4:01 am, a single, fatal bullet struck Morgan—who’d reportedly been despondent for days.

He’d pointed a replica handgun at two cops who’d been trying to talk him down from the SmartPark garage at SW 4th and Morrison, and they opened fire. Mental health workers and the bureau’s crisis negotiators had been called minutes before, and were only on the way.

“With a determined individual, it’s usually difficult to change their course of behavior,” said Sergeant Pete Simpson, a police bureau spokesman, several hours after the shooting. “Even with our best efforts.”

And that ‘s why—in the wake of Morgan’s death—advocates are renewing their calls for better funding of the social safety net that let Morgan slip through. In at least one case, advocates are making a plea for a dramatic shift in the way suicide calls to 911 are handled in the first place.

“The police need to get out of the suicide business,” says Jason Renaud, a co-founder of Mental Health Association of Portland, saying it’s a myth that suicidal people are at higher risk of harming others. “If you always send police, that is effectively criminalizing mental illness.”

Morgan’s death even had the Oregonian wondering whether the bureau should resurrect its “old model of having a Crisis Intervention Team of specialized officers available at moment’s notice”—precisely echoing a Portland Tribune article last January.

After a spate of shootings involving mentally ill men in 2010, the bureau unveiled a pair of initiatives meant to keep confrontations from spiraling into tragedy.

In the fall, commanders announced a “walk-away” strategy for officers called to deal with people in crisis. And at some point this year, 911 dispatchers will start shifting “non-threatening” mental health calls to the Multnomah County Mental Health Call Center instead of police. The bureau already works with a 24-hour crisis line. But those strategies may not have saved Morgan.

“It wouldn’t fall under the 911 protocol,” says David Austin, a county spokesman, noting Morgan mentioned he had a weapon. “That’s a public safety issue.”

Jay Auslander of Project Respond mentioned Morgan’s claims that he had a knife and “possibly” a gun. Even if Project Respond had arrived sooner, he said, “it wouldn’t be mental health worker who intervened.”

Simpson, when asked about the “walk-away” approach, said the bureau’s investigation would look into “what the thought process was” that went into approaching Morgan.

Terri Walker
, president of the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said Morgan’s case was less about what the police could have done differently than what could have been done to keep Morgan from ever having to call 911.

“The real tragedy is we don’t have sufficient preventive resources,” says Walker. “Understanding what mental illness is and how to communicate with someone before a crisis can make a difference.”

Renaud put a finer point on that sentiment.

“We’re at this place,” he said, “because we have under-funded community mental health care and over-funded public safety.”