Police and the mentally ill: Training cops is good but only a start

Guest opinion by Mike Burton, vice provost of the School of Extended Studies at Portland State University and Multnomah County representative on the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, published in The Oregonian, June 21, 2010

Mike Burton

Mike Burton

An editorial in The Sunday Oregonian cites Portland Police Chief Mike Reese‘s focus to have his officers trained better to deal with the mentally ill. This is a good move, but as the editorial states: “This is not to suggest the Portland Police Bureau can or should shoulder this assignment on its own.”

In fact the problem of dealing with the mentally ill is not a police problem. It’s a community problem that goes far beyond any police force.

Currently, nearly 23 percent of the inmates in Oregon state prisons are classified with severe or greater mental health needs while another 26 percent have recognized mental health concerns that would benefit from treatment. That’s a total of about 6,900 inmates.

A few decades ago, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was the perceived and often real view of mental health hospitals. Because of this, society decided to “de-institutionalize” mental patients, the thought being that it was more humane to treat mental patients in small, community-based facilities. While this was an admirable goal, it hasn’t happened because we have failed to invest is these community-based facilities. Jails and prisons have become the default facilities to house and manage this population. Unfortunately, jails and prisons don’t have the capacity to do a good job in treating inmates with mental health problems because most of the money has gone to new prisons and security staffing.

While there seems to be no end to advocates for tougher laws to fill up the prison beds, there are fewer advocates for treatment of the mentally ill. Most would prefer to have them out of sight, and thus out of mind.

Training our police to understand the mentally ill is a good move, but let’s not think this is the only step that’s needed. The police are often the front line and have to confront mentally ill people who have been failed by their families and the community. Let’s assume that the “new” police will indeed deal with the mentally ill whom they confront in a passionate and humane manner. What then? Where do the police turn? The 16 “sub-acute” crisis beds that the county will open in 2011 is a start, but just that.

Community mental health services are costly, but in the final analysis they’re less costly than incarcerating these individuals in the prison system. So those services are a worthwhile investment of the public’s money.

READ – Tap police brain power to help the mentally ill, unsigned editorial from The Oregonian