Newberg-Dundee Police Department taking a proactive approach to mental health

From the Portland Tribune, February 17, 2016

New mental health crisis response unit building relationships with people with mental illnesses before they have a crisis

In Newberg-Dundee Police Department Sgt. Mark Cooke’s experience, when it’s deemed that someone struggling with mental illness must be committed to a hospital for observation and evaluation, a lot of times that person is less than willing to comply, making for a difficult and potentially dangerous situation for everyone involved.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case when someone reported their housemate had reached a crisis state and Cooke, who serves as a department trainer in areas like use of force, was dispatched to the call.

Because Cooke already had a relationship with that person and there was some trust established, they willingly complied when a Yamhill County Mental Health community outreach specialist determined that a mental health hold was the proper course of action.

After receiving an evaluation and going on medication, that particular community member even sought out Cooke in order to thank him.

“He even made a photocopy of his plan on how to stay healthy for me in an effort to help me keep him accountable,” Cooke said. “It was just a really positive interaction where a lot of times those are negative. A lot of times you have to go hands on with folks when they are at that level of crisis, so we really counted that as a win.”

Proactively diffusing such potentially harmful situations is a big reason why Cooke formed the department’s mental health crisis response unit last spring.

Without the existence of the team — comprised of Cooke, four other NDPD officers and two county outreach specialists — it is likely that Cooke would not have started the pre-existing relationship and built the trust that proved to be so crucial on that particular call, as well as many others.

“It’s amazing how many people out there have mental health issues and can benefit from outreach,” Cooke said. “Sometimes it just takes the people who are on the front lines interacting with them to try this.”

Cooke did a ride-along with a similar unit from the Washington County Sherriff’s Office as part of his research before founding the team and reached out to various stakeholders in the community, including the director of Yamhill County Health and Human Services, who was a big supporter of the idea.

Officers on the team participate voluntarily and meet weekly with the two county outreach specialists to discuss issues before they make home visits in the community.

Contact is sometimes initiated by the outreach specialists, but if any NDPD officers have contact with someone in the public who they think may suffer from mental health issues or would benefit from connecting with available resources, they will forward their report to Cooke.

“A huge part of it is that we have buy in from officers that aren’t on the team,” Cooke said. “A lot of the catalyst behind what we’re doing every week is reacting to the officers sending reports to us saying this person could probably use some outreach. That in and of itself has been remarkable.”

Sometimes visits are a one-shot deal, while others lead to sustained connection. According to outreach specialist Debra Agee, people are often curious and sometimes react a bit defensively at first, but that most respond quite positively.

In a sense, the unit has helped transform the NDPD into an arm of Yamhill County Mental Health by providing more eyes and ears in the community than it could possibly afford to deploy. At the same time, the proactive and positive nature of the interactions only strengthens the police department’s relationship with and image in the community.

“We go out there and provide whatever kind of outreach they need, kind of bridging the gap and helping make them feel safer and know that there’s a team out there with law enforcement and mental health that work together, that law enforcement isn’t always a scary thing,” Agee said.

Because mental illness greatly affects the people around a person struggling with it, the mental health crisis response unit has also proven to be beneficial to their family, friends and caregivers.

That was certainly the case when one Newberg resident, who we will refer to as Mary for the sake of anonymity, called the NDPD to report that her son had reached a crisis state.

Worn out from an especially trying year, she was afraid when she first connected with Cooke, but was equally relieved to know that police cars wouldn’t be sent out “sirens blazing and cops drawing guns.”

“I told him, ‘I don’t want you to kill my kid. I don’t want you to shoot my kid,’” she said. “Because that’s what will happen. He looked at me and told me, ‘I have no intention of doing that. I want to help you.’ It was like, oh my God, there’s somebody that can actually say that. Just knowing that meant a lot to me.”

After encountering obstacle after obstacle in 20 years interacting with the mental health system, Mary found the department’s new proactive approach to be a breath of fresh air. She got the impression that her son is happy to see when members of the team come for a visit because it shows that somebody cares.

“So I think the fact that there is support, there are people that will actually come to your door, talk to them, see how they’re doing, build a rapport, breaking down the stigma that you’re bad, I think they’ve got a good start,” Mary said. “I think that the community needs to build on it.”

Cooke estimates that the team has made 25 outreach visits in the past two months and that department calls categorized as “mental health” and “suicide” have both risen significantly since the program began.

In the future, he hopes to expand officer training in the department, including possibly hosting a crisis response training for officers from other departments in the area, and establish connections with similar units at other law enforcement agencies in the county.

“Newberg PD really needs to be highlighted, and in particular Mark, for the wonderful work they’re doing partnering with us and really putting it out there that they are the good guys,” Agee said. “They’re there to help and I think it’s really making a difference.”