Portland police efforts to fix crisis response are a failure, feds say

From The Oregonian, September 15, 2012

The U.S. Department of Justice was blatantly clear in its report last week that the Portland Police Bureau’s practice of training all its officers in crisis intervention techniques — adopted after the high-profile death in police custody of James P. Chasse Jr. — isn’t working.

The review found Portland’s crisis training sorely lacks many of the key components federal officials would expect to see in a successful program: “live exposure” to mental health consumers and family members, role-playing scenarios and community collaboration.

“During our investigation, we spoke with advocates who desired greater inclusion, but were refused access to the curriculum and were not allowed to attend training sessions,” the federal officials said.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez found the bureau’s tight control over the training unwarranted and ineffective. He urged the Portland police to set up what mental health advocates, retired and current Portland police have advocated for years: a select team of officers with unique skills to serve as the “go-to” police called out to de-escalate mental health crisis calls.

“There is growing evidence that a crisis team response is likely to result in a better outcome and reinforce public confidence in policing,” Perez wrote to Portland Mayor Sam Adams.

The federal investigators also recommended such a team be led by a “dedicated police-based crisis intervention coordinator.” That appears to be a direct snub to the civilian mental health expert Leisbeth Gerritsen, who has led the Police bureau’s crisis intervention training under the past two chiefs.

Portland police used to have the very type of specialized program that Perez is now seeking.

From 1995 to 2006, the bureau had a crisis intervention team consisting of a select group of officers who volunteered for the work, reported to either an officer or a sergeant and invited mental health consumers to participate in their training. Bureau officials scrapped that and introduced a mandatory 40 hours of crisis intervention training for all officers by 2007.

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The change came after the controversial 2006 death in police custody of Chasse, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Chasse was chased, then tackled by police after police thought he was urinating on a sidewalk in the Pearl District. He died from blunt force trauma to the chest.

“Expanding the training to all the officers was welcomed at the time,” said Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon. “I don’t think anybody was clear about how effective it would be, but it was something.”

Justice Department officials argued the bureau can’t expect officers to become proficient with a week’s worth of training.

“The 40-hour crisis intervention training curriculum is not what makes a specialized crisis intervention officer an expert in handling mental illness calls,” they wrote.

“While we commend PPB for training all officers on crisis matters,” federal officials wrote, “this approach assumes incorrectly that all PPB officers are equally capable of safely handling crisis situations and fails to build greater capacity among qualified officers.”

During the federal review, a Portland patrol officer told investigators that his job was “to put people in jail, not to provide social services,” the report said.

Clearly, federal officials said, this officer would not be the appropriate person to conduct a welfare check on a person with mental illness.

The Justice Department officials blasted the bureau for failing to allow community input on training curriculum, for preventing stakeholders from attending the crisis intervention courses, and for abandoning role-playing by officers during the class.

Bringing people with mental health problems into the crisis intervention classes could help reduce officers’ fears of people with mental illness, the federal officials said.

“There does not appear to be good reason to deny reasonable access to a crisis intervention course” to people with mental illness, family members, advocates or mental health workers, the review found. “One of the most effective ways to address the stigma of mental illness is to increase direct exposure to people with mental illness.”

Portland police now discuss crisis intervention scenarios instead of “role-playing” in front of peers. That approach doesn’t measure up, federal officials said.

Their training days are scattered over multiple weeks, they found, rather than presented in one continuous week of class, which would be more effective. The course also is given to new officers too early in their careers, federal officials said.

Recruits often lack the maturity that experience on the street brings and are not generally “ready to receive, absorb and implement critical information about how mental illness calls need a different response than the more common police calls.”

Mental health advocates in Portland have spent years pushing for changes like those recommended in the federal review.

The police bureau’s move to mandatory training “basically X’d out the community,” said Beckie Child, a former executive director of Mental Health America of Oregon. “When I would raise that issue, I would basically get pooh-poohed.”

Terri Walker, board president of the Multnomah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The Oregonian in January 2011 that consumers of mental health services were afraid to call Portland police because they didn’t know if they’d get an understanding officer familiar with their needs.

Retired Portland police Sgt. Karl McDade, who was the first coordinator of Portland’s specialized crisis intervention team, said the Justice Department review hit the nail on the head.

“Since the police bureau eliminated the crisis intervention team, they’ve had a continuing problem,” McDade said Friday. “You cannot train police officers coming out of the academy to deal with mentally ill people. They all want to catch burglars and robbers.”

McDade said he hopes the bureau follows the federal direction.

“The chief is a nice man, but in this area, he’s made a mistake,” McDade said. “I think the chief and the mayor have to admit that and change course.”

In the last year, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese repeatedly has defended the bureau’s approach to crisis intervention. In January, he called the bureau’s strategy “innovative and creative.” In particular, he pointed to the mandatory crisis intervention classes and the bureau’s one-car mobile crisis unit, which pairs one officer with a civilian mental health care worker.

Federal officials found otherwise. They noted that the one-car mobile unit doesn’t respond to crisis calls and is largely ineffective because its hours are limited, noon to 10 p.m. four days a week.

Adams said he agrees with the Justice Department’s criticisms. The mayor said, though, that the specialized team recommended by Perez is not enough. Adams plans to increase the number of mobile crisis cars, pairing specially trained officers with Project Respond workers, who specialize in mental health services. He also wants dispatchers to route certain mental health calls to mental health providers instead of to police.

The chief is willing to put in place the federal recommendations on crisis intervention training, his spokesman said.

“We believe we have had a valid perspective about how CIT should be implemented,” Lt. Robert King said. “But we are more than willing to see DOJ’s perspective and implement their recommendations.”