Incidents involving mentally ill increase (in Medford, Oregon)

From the Medford Tribune, May 02, 2011

The Medford Police Department is attempting to deal with an alarming spike in the number of mentally ill people coming in contact with police on an almost daily basis.

The increase in protective holds police are placing on mentally ill suspects comes as overall crime numbers have risen in 2011. It’s a trend that has police brass concerned that the crime numbers will continue to be ugly throughout the year.

The Medford Police Department is dealing with a sharp spike in the number of mentally ill people coming into police contact. However, this is part of a larger trend of rising crime in the first quarter of 2011.

Serious crimes such as robbery, rape, assault, burglary and arson have climbed 15 percent over last year. Property crimes such as fraud, vandalism, weapons-law violations and stolen property have risen 24 percent over last year.

Medford cops have placed 83 protective holds on city residents so far this year — up from 40 holds at this time in 2010. In addition, Medford police have made 155 mental health referrals, up from 85 at this time last year.

“The mental health problem is disturbing because there isn’t an easy way to deal with it,” Medford police Chief Randy Schoen said. “The state’s mental health system is broken.”

Schoen said lack of funding for mental health services in the face of the recession has left more mentally ill people walking the streets with little access to care. And there is little cops can do to combat the problem except place mentally ill suspects in protective custody when they show signs of harming themselves or others.

The issue is particularly disturbing for local cops after the April 22 fatal shooting of a Eugene police officer by a woman who reportedly suffered from schizophrenia.

“Mentally ill people who have access to firearms is a dangerous problem for everyone,” Schoen said. “It puts police and the suspect in harm’s way.”

Medford Master Police Officer Kerry Curtis recently attended a training course on dealing with people suffering from mental breakdowns such as delirium, extreme agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, disorientation, violent and bizarre behavior.

“It is important that police recognize these problems as medical issues and not only criminal issues,” Curtis said. “But we are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists that can diagnose someone as being mentally ill. It is our job to keep them from being a danger to themselves or others.”

Curtis said officers attempt to work with mentally ill people by trying to convince them to voluntarily seek treatment at a mental health facility.

However, some who suffer from mental health issues are distrustful or even violent toward police, whom they see as a possible threat.

Earlier this year, Curtis said, he and other officers were forced to physically subdue a man who suffered from schizophrenia. The man’s family reported that he had recently started acting bizarre and at one point brandished a sword and made bizarre statements.

“It was really sad because the man and his wife had been married for 32 years and there hadn’t been any problems like this until his mental health began to deteriorate,” Curtis said.

Curtis placed a mental hold on the man and took him to the hospital for treatment. A doctor ordered that the man be released soon after.

“I was really concerned for his wife’s well being,” Curtis said. “But ultimately it is doctors who make the decisions.”

Schoen said the ongoing stress from the recession, as well as alcohol and drug issues within the community, could be responsible for part of the increase in mental health issues hurting the community.

“Unfortunately, there are no easy answers,” the chief said.

Curtis said encounters with the mentally ill are some of the toughest calls for police to handle.

“We are inside the houses talking to loved ones,” Curtis said. “It’s definitely a low point for the families.”