Gordly tells panel action needed, not studies

from The Oregonian – December 2006

About 20 public safety and mental health leaders, advocates, and elected officials Tuesday pledged to enhance the professionalism of Portland police and sheriff’s deputies, while lobbying to expand services for people suffering from mental illness.

“You know that we don’t need any more studies,” state Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, told the group at City Hall. “We need to act on what we already know . . . This is about putting together our collective will.”

Gordly and Mayor Tom Potter chaired the first Mental Health/Public Safety panel, which the mayor created following the death of James P. Chasse Jr. in police custody Sept. 17. Chasse, 42, suffered from schizophrenia and died of broad-based blunt-force trauma to his chest after police struggled to take him into custody. The panel expects to meet every two weeks until February.

Potter urged members to examine what conditions allowed Chasse’s death to occur, how it could have been prevented, and what needs to be changed.

“We are not here to assign blame or to point fingers, but rather to find solutions to a very grave problem,” Potter said. “It is unacceptable that anyone should die because of the lack of training, lack of coordination, funding, or appropriate response.”

Besides pushing for expanded crisis intervention training for street officers and sheriff’s deputies, the group plans to sift through existing reports on how to improve the mental health system, prioritize the recommendations and figure out to make them happen.

Doris Cameron-Minard, a past president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Oregon, whose son suffers from mental illness, said she has served on two governors’ mental health task forces. She said she’s been frustrated that many of the ideas that came out of those reports are still gathering dust. Steps that need to be taken, she said, include expanding access for the mentally ill to community treatment, and providing diversion treatment programs so people suffering from mental illness don’t end up in jail. In Clackamas County, for example, she said the mental health court has been successful.

Beckie Child, president of the Mental Health Association of Oregon, told the panel that she’d like to see more mental health consumers at the table to provide their accounts of their encounters with law enforcement. She gave the mayor a petition she circulated, seeking his commitment to expanded Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement, a step Potter announced Monday he is taking.

“Law officers play a vital role in our lives –regardless of the condition of the mental health system or our own disability,” the petition says. “Many people with psychiatric disabilities have had fearful, dangerous or humiliating experiences with law officers.”

Child, who has suffered from mental illness since a child and has been homeless three times, said she had her own disturbing encounter with police when she was unable to check out of a hotel and officers were called. During her mental health crisis, she said, she kept hearing officers saying in the next room “how whacked-out” she was.

Potter said he’d sponsor a session so mental health consumers could meet directly with officers and share their views. “Everyone agrees, the time for rhetoric is over,” Potter said. “The time for results is now.”