Portland police hope new mental health unit will curb deadly encounters

By Bob Heye, KATU News, April 10, 2013

PPB shieldA new Portland police unit is about to enter training to cut down on violent confrontations between police and people with mental health problems.

Police hope it will cut down on the chances they’ll encounter people with mental health problems, and when they do, these specially-trained officers will lessen the chances those encounters will turn deadly.

Last month two Portland police officers shot and killed Santiago Cisneros III after he opened fire on them. Cisneros was a veteran who’d reportedly been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2010 police shot and killed Aaron Campbell. They’d been called in by Campbell’s family who was worried about Campbell’s grief over his brother’s death.

In 2006 it was James Chasse, a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, who was beaten by police. Chasse died in the back of a police cruiser.

Police say their new unit is aimed at cutting down those deadly encounters.

“To get them out of a crisis-cycle so we’re not encountering them on a regular basis,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, a Portland Police Bureau spokesman.

Every Portland police officer gets training to deal with people having mental health problems. In September, a Justice Department investigation into those previous cases said that wasn’t enough.

Now 50 Portland officers will get extra mental health response training. It is training unique to Portland.

“There’s really nothing like it in the country that we’ve been able to take out of a box and say, ‘this is what we’re going to do,'” Simpson said.

Mental health advocates believe that extra training will pay off and know the federal focus on Portland police problems will get attention from cities around the country.

“Because we have had this additional attention on these use-of-force issues, Portland is now way out ahead of the rest of the nation,” said Jason Renaud of Mental Health Association of Portland. “It will be the other cities coming to visit us to find out how to make this happen.”

To make it work police need a place to take people in mental health crisis other than jail or to the hospital. Under the agreement with the federal government, that’s supposed to be a mental health walk-in center.

But nobody has come up with the $1 million it will take to get the center running.