Slammed: Saltzman’s Mental Health Plan for Cops

From the Portland Mercury, April 15, 2010

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman is under fire from mental health advocates for releasing a “disappointing” report, which intends to improve police interactions with people suffering from mental illness.

The report, issued at a city hall press conference last week, made the following recommendations for immediate action: a trial partnering scheme between just one police officer and one mental health worker; police meet-ups with mentally ill people at small community gatherings; support for the county’s crisis triage center which has been in the works since 2006; and calls for more money from the state and federal government.

“This is essentially business as usual,” responds Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon. “On the plus side, I think encouraging greater cooperation between police and those in the mental health community is a good thing—on the other hand they don’t have the kind of money that is required to do something meaningful.

“There needs to be a major change in terms of how the state funds mental health services,” Joondeph continues.

Indeed, Mayor Sam Adams announced last week that the Portland Police Bureau is likely to overspend this year’s budget by $5 million, prompting cuts across city government and in the bureau itself to balance the books by June.

Saltzman and Police Chief Rosie Sizer began meeting privately with mental health advocates last fall, after recommending just two weeks off for the two officers involved in the 2006 death in custody of James Chasse Jr., a man with schizophrenia—following an investigation that took more than three years.

Since then, the police have shot Aaron Campbell, an unarmed African American man with a history of hospitalization following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and Jack Dale Collins, a homeless man with a history of self-harm and alcoholism—who actually walked into a police station 11 days before he was shot, and was recommended to seek mental health treatment.

Some prominent mental health advocates, like Jason Renaud with the Mental Health Association of Portland, refused to meet with Saltzman and Sizer behind closed doors to start writing the report last fall. Renaud’s organization greeted Saltzman’s report last week with a statement decrying it as “bureaucratic smoke, which obscures political weakness.”

“The proposed recommendations… lack dedicated funding, a timeline for implementation, responsible parties, and accountability benchmarks,” their statement continues—although notably, Renaud’s name is on the ballot against Saltzman’s in the May election.

Meanwhile other advocates, like Joondeph and Beckie Child—an advocate from Mental Health America of Oregon—felt that the opportunity to sit down with the police commissioner and police chief was too good to pass up. Child is also disappointed with the report.

“I can’t even begin to explain my frustration,” she says, saying that the changes wouldn’t have made any difference in the deaths of Chasse, Campbell, or Collins.

Child says she’s concerned about the partnering scheme between police officers and mental health workers, wondering how it would have resolved recent situations differently. As for the “small group” meetings with people suffering from mental illness, Child says she thinks the city is “afraid to do this in large groups or more publicly—they are wanting to control the message.

“Writing this report was the easy thing to do,” Child continues. “Changing practices and beliefs—not so easy.”

Commissioner Saltzman is up for reelection in May, and is under pressure to appear proactive on this issue.

“I think Bob [Joondeph] is correct, we need to reinvigorate our efforts for state and federal funding for mental health,” says Saltzman in response. “And, I completely understand Ms. Child’s frustration, the current situation is unacceptable.”

“More will need to happen than just the action items in the report,” Saltzman continues. “We need to engage our entire community to change practices and beliefs. This is a start, but I agree that the hard work lies ahead.”

Saltzman drew attention to the release of the report at a campaign event that evening, Thursday, April 8, with the Buckman Community Association.

Asked about criticism of the police, Saltzman said the last year has been a “challenge” and also a “blessing.”

“I agree that there are some bad apples,” he said. “It’s my job as police commissioner to work hard to regain the trust that has been lost as a result of the tragic deaths going back four years now, starting with James Chasse.”

“Since he’s been challenged, the police commissioner has come up with a lot of new solutions, but it’s too little and it’s too late,” responded Jesse Cornett, Saltzman’s main rival for the seat, at the Buckman meeting. “You can’t keep electing the same leaders and expect anything to be any different.”