Mental health and accountability: An open letter to Sam Adams

From The Oregonian, June 15, 2010

Sam Adams (Image:

Sam Adams (Image:

By Jenny Westberg

Dear Sam,

Thank you for responding, finally, to our repeated calls to bring accountability to the Portland Police Bureau. It may have taken a couple of months, but you took our requests to heart.

We wrote and asked you to take a specific set of actions to address serious problems in the Portland Police Bureau. We directed your attention to an alarming number of tragic outcomes between police and people with mental illness. We noted a failure of police accountability that seemed to guarantee more tragedies in the future.

In our most recent letter, dated March 9, we articulated our concerns and listed the steps needed to address them. Sam, you went down the list and checked them off one by one.

1. We asked you to reassign police commissioner Dan Saltzman and assign yourself the Portland Police Bureau. On May 12, you did just that.

2. We advised you to begin an immediate search for a new police chief. You summarily dispatched Rosie Sizer and appointed Mike Reese as the new chief.

3. We asked you to create options for people in crisis other than police response. Your 2010-2011 city budget includes funding for a crisis assessment and treatment center scheduled to open in April 2011.

4. We requested you improve the Police Bureau’s cultural competency, and we weren’t just talking about skin color. True cultural competency acknowledges our truly diverse population, and that includes people with mental illness. Your response shows you share our values, with continued funding for crisis intervention training. This will help improve interactions between police and a significant number of the individuals they serve.

5. We asked you to speak openly and forthrightly, regardless of litigation, to keep the bureau accountable and credible. We believe your recent actions have set a new course for police that emphasizes precisely these ideals.

We knew what we asked would be difficult. However, we believed our requests were necessary and justified, and we are heartened you stepped forward in an out-of-control situation. You made hard choices and substantial changes. We thank you. But Sam, the most important task remains undone.

For generations people with diagnosis of mental illness have been routinely short-changed by the state Legislature. This has taken a toll in human misery, and you’ve watched with us as emergency rooms, courts, jails, prisons and cemeteries fill up with people who didn’t get treatment.

Beyond that, consider the costs. Last year alcoholism alone cost Oregonians $3.2 billion – more than eight times the tax revenue on alcohol sales.

Much of the money going to your Police Bureau backstops the lack of state funding for mental health services. Officers constantly deal with crime fueled by addiction and disturbances caused by untreated mental illness. They field crisis calls. They see the aftermath of suicide.

We’re paying cops to do jobs they aren’t trained for and don’t want, because services for treating mental illness and addiction are starved. Police officers do the best they can, but they can only do what they know. Sometimes what they know, unfortunately, is how to unholster their guns. We’ve seen the tragedies that result, and you’ve seen the price tag on the litigation that follows.

As mayor and police commissioner, you could spend infinite money training police to deal with crisis after crisis. We ask you, instead, to understand the continuum that leads to crisis. We need you to place pressure on the Legislature in this upcoming deficit budget year to spend money most wisely. Join us, and take this opportunity to change the face of the city.

The vision we set before you will require leadership, fortitude and wisdom, sustained over the long term. You already know our mental health system is broken. People will be asking for glue and a new coat of paint. We invite you to a barn-raising.

Here’s the secret incentive: This will save you money. But the savings may not show up where you expect. Many people won’t understand your direction. They’ll be confused by the shift toward long-term savings and they’ll be unhappy.

Sam, we think you can handle it. In fact, you can think of this letter as a sort of performance review. We’re asking you to take on more responsibility – but we believe you’ve shown you’re qualified.

This won’t be an easy road, but there’s a payoff. You’re going to get results – and a legacy. You’ve got an opportunity to be remembered as the mayor who shaped Portland’s future and, incidentally, improved countless lives.

Jenny Westberg is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland.