Forest Grove cops must face problems dealing with mentally ill, says letter writer

By Kari Bray, The Oregonian, Nov. 28, 2012

Forest Grove police are challenged by the time commitment for calls involving mentally ill individuals, officers told the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission Wednesday morning.

Police interaction with mentally ill citizens is a concern for cities across the country, Police Chief Janie Schutz said. However, the issue is likely to gain more attention in Forest Grove following a letter sent earlier this month to the Washington County Board of Commissioners.

In a letter received by the board on Nov. 15, Karen James with the Washington County ReEntry and Mental Health Action Team urged county and city leaders to review their policies regarding how law enforcement engages with mentally ill individuals.

“While most police are committed to the ideals of protect and serve and do so with compassion and valor, persons with mental illness continue to be harmed by police without consequences,” James stated in the letter.

Though the document addresses the county as a whole, Schutz said she expects the focus to narrow to a more local level, eventually reaching Forest Grove.

“These are very, very difficult situations,” she said. “And I don’t think the public knows that.”

One in four Americans will experience a mental health disorder in a given year, though the levels of severity vary. Meanwhile, one in 17 Americans lives with a serious mental illness such as major depression or schizophrenia, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Forest Grove Police Officer Joseph Martino said the department cannot accurately calculate how many calls are directly linked to mental illness because that information is not tracked by dispatch. However, the department can break down calls by type.

Between July 2009 and January 2012, the Forest Grove Police Department responded to more than 200 threatened or attempted suicides, about 2,100 suspicious persons or circumstances and nearly 1,200 welfare checks, which occur when someone calls to report that a neighbor or acquaintance is behaving irregularly or dangerously.

“A lot of times you go to a mental health call and there’s nothing criminal,” Martino said. “They’re not in a state to hurt themselves or anyone else so we have to walk away. And then we get the call again an hour later.”

At the heart of the problem in Forest Grove is the amount of time required from police officers to deal with these calls, Schutz said. At times when the department is staffed with the minimum of three officers, this can leave two officers to serve more than 21,000 citizens for up to five hours.

Martino described the typical process for an officer responding to a mental health-related call. It totals between an hour and a half to five hours, depending on the situation.

The officer evaluates the condition of the individual and determines whether medical attention is needed and whether the person is a danger to himself or others. If the officer determines the situation is dangerous, he can take the citizen into custody on a mental hold. From there, the individual may be transported to a hospital, where the officer waits until medical staff takes over. The process finishes with paperwork back at the office.

“Obviously you’ve got my attention on the time consumption for one-on-one time,” PSAC member Victoria Johnson said. “So what’s a community to do?”

City Council President Tom Johnston said that question is nothing new for Forest Grove or other communities, and there is no easy solution.

“I think all we can do now is educate,” he said.

Martino said it may not be possible for the entire community to agree on what should be done, but the key is coming together.

Schutz expects James’ letter or something similar to reach the Forest Grove City Council soon.

In the letter, James urges Washington County cities to implement several changes. These include revising use of force guidelines to require that officers seek “necessary guidance” when interacting with a mentally ill individual, establishing a mental health triage desk at dispatch so calls are appropriately directed and changing Taser policies to focus on de-escalating situations that arise during welfare checks or low-level offenses.