9-1-1 mental health calls to soon go to counselors not cops

From KGW.com, December 2, 2011

Portland Police will soon respond to fewer 9-1-1 calls involving mental health issues.

Sometime after the first of the year, many of those calls will be transferred to Multnomah County’s Mental Health call center.

The center is staffed around the clock with professional mental health counselors. The hope is that people suffering mental health issues will get the help they need and not escalate their behavior simply because a police officer shows up at their home.

A number of crisis calls end up with the police who then respond to check on the caller. Police chief Mike Reese says that’s not always a good thing.

“Simply having someone in uniform can exacerbate these problems. And not that our officers don’t do amazing work in these circumstances, but just the appearance of a uniform can set some people off,” Reese said.

Mental health advocates point to the shooting of Aaron Campbell when arguing for the change in police response. Nearly two years ago, a Portland police officer shot Campbell in the back believing he was armed and reaching for his gun. He was not.

Multnomah County Mental Health Association spokesman Jason Renaud mentions the shooting while talking about the change.

“And if Aaron Campbell’s mother in law had had the opportunity to call the crisis line instead of calling 9-1-1, Aaron’s crisis which was pretty normal, he was intoxicated and distressed and despondent, could have been averted,” Renaud said. “He didn’t need to be shot, I think that’s the consensus now. I think a social worker could have done a better job,” he said.

After the change in dispatch rules, 9-1-1 calls involving mental health will go to the counselors, not the police. Police chief Reese said the exception will be situations where people threaten to harm themselves or others and have the means to carry out the threat.

Heeseung Kang, the supervisor of the mental health call center says the change is good for everyone.

“I think we are the best equipped to be able to engage that caller you know, show them the empathy, the hearing you know feeling understood that they’re really longing for and then help them get wrapped up with the services, the help, the support that they need,” Kang said.

There is no firm start date, but soon people struggling with mental health in Multnomah County will talk to counselors not cops. That has mental health advocates like Jason Renaud thrilled.

“It’s a great idea and its great the city and county can work together to make this happen,” he said.