A new take on distress calls

Opinion by the editors of The Oregonian, December 5, 2011

Nearly two years ago, The Skanner newspaper issued a startling SOS call about, well, SOS calls.

The African American newspaper advised its readers not to call the Portland Police Bureau. “We cannot have faith that innocents won’t get caught in the firing line when trigger-finger officers arrive in force,” the editorial said. Just two weeks earlier, a 9-1-1 call had triggered a tragic chain of events.

READ – ‘Having an Emergency? Don’t Call the Police’, February 12, 2009, by Bernie Foster, Publisher of The Skanner
READ – ‘What to Do Before Your Kid is in Crisis’, July 26, 2010,by Jenny Westberg of the Mental Health Association of Portland, published in The Skanner

Portland police were called to a woman’s apartment complex to check on her and her children. Her boyfriend, Aaron Campbell, was distraught and suicidal. A police negotiator talked Campbell into coming outside — and he did so, walking backwards with his hands over his head — but he was killed, anyway.

READ – what happened to Aaron Campbell

“Many of us are wondering why the police ever had to be on the scene of a grieving, depressed young man who subsequently died of a … shot to the back,” The Skanner wrote. “…There is a sense in the community of desperation … This situation never seems to change because there are no consequences to the officers who do the shooting.”

Since then, there have been consequences. One year ago, Police Chief Mike Reese fired the officer who shot Campbell and disciplined other officers at the scene.

Although the police union has challenged the firing, Reese’s prompt response telegraphed that the bureau had turned a corner. In the past two years, the bureau has launched several other initiatives to improve its response to people in crisis. Looming over it as well is an ongoing federal investigation into the bureau’s treatment of the mentally ill.

Now comes another hopeful sign — a revision of 9-1-1 protocols. As The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein reported Friday, distress calls about someone suffering a mental health crisis will soon be winnowed in a more precise and strategic way.

When it’s deemed to be safe (which means, in part, when there’s no weapon involved), calls from those in a mental health crisis will be directed to trained professionals at the county’s Mental Health Call Center. Police will no longer be the default responder.

There are risks involved in this change, and it’s important to point out that this approach might not have changed the outcome in the Campbell case. (Police were told that Campbell had a gun.)

Clearly, how police handle themselves when they arrive at a scene will still be of paramount concern. But don’t underestimate this kind of change. “That editorial shook up a lot of people,” The Skanner’s editor, Lisa Loving, acknowledged Friday, “and I think we have seen some breakthroughs.”

Given the history here, people will still be reluctant to call 9-1-1, Loving suspects, but “you have to give them credit for trying.” The city, county and mental health community have heard — and heeded — the SOS call about SOS calls.

This new approach may have its own complications. But it’s almost certain to save lives.