Police learn their lessons on handling the mentally ill

By Robert Landauer – editorial columnist for The Oregonian, April 18, 1996. Not available elsewhere online.

“Police shootings in August 1994 of two mentally disturbed women in less than a week shocked and appalled Portland and Gresham.”

“The cream of the crop.”

The phrase is common, but both the source and the subject are surprising.

The praise comes from Margaret Taylor. She is executive director of the Salem-based Oregon Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She is talking about Portland-area police, mostly in the Portland Police Bureau.

The change of perception is startling. Police shootings in August 1994 of two mentally disturbed women in less than a week shocked and appalled Portland and Gresham.

But the tragedies should not have surprised them.

Oregon has been downsizing its mental -health-care institutions and underfunding community-based alternatives for years. It had just closed its regional psychiatric hospital in Wilsonville, Dammasch State Hospital.

“The last resort” is what doctors, judges, police and advocates for the mentally ill called Dammasch. The pun was marginally cruel, bitterly ironic — and chillingly apt.

“We would see them in the sobering station, and they had just gotten off the bus with prescriptions from Dammasch,” recalled Ed Blackburn, director of Central City Concern’s Hooper Detoxification Center in Northeast Portland.

Calls for police intervention mounted as the population of the seriously mentally ill on the streets rose.

The killings of the two women were a peak, a summit. But not a triumph.

Gendarmes feared they were becoming forced draftees for police-assisted suicides. Most disliked being cast as head-thumping, guns-and-guts, “Robocop” stereotypes.

Portland police responded creatively. Sgt. Karl McDade and Carol Sweet of the bureau researched and helped develop a Crisis Intervention Team. It was operational and plugged into the 9-1-1 emergency system a year after the two deaths.

The idea is to get 90 to 100 officers — three to four every day on every shift in each precinct — who have been trained to identify the mentally disturbed and deal safely and sensitively with them.

The bureau is two-thirds of the way toward its goal, says Capt. David Butzer, who leads the Family Services Division. He makes another point worth appreciating:

“These are all volunteers, no extra pay, and we’ve asked far too few people (to handle) the needs, demands and great stresses.”

The effort is noticed:

Jack Wolinski, director of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Multnomah County: “During the training period, consumers talked to these police officers and were telling them what was going on in their minds during the psychotic episodes. The police discovered that the mentally ill person was very frightened and confused. Even if there was a weapon, it was for self-protection, not to inflict harm. . . . The dialogue taught them to be patient, and the crisis could be resolved in a peaceful manner.”

Howard Klink, deputy director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community and Family Services: “I would absolutely support the idea that there is a sea change in both law enforcement people’s understanding and their concern for mentally ill people on the street.”

Police understand “the inappropriateness and inhumaneness of putting these people in jails.”

Mike McCracken, executive director, Association of Community Mental Health Programs, also sees changes occurring: “Police are taking a leadership role in advocating for better services in jails, better diversion processes and community networks of services. Police and sheriffs are not Bubbas. They do not want the mentally ill to have to suffer in an inappropriate setting.”

Beyond our own shortcomings — but close to our vulnerabilities — is where compassion and pragmatism meet.