Steve Duin: In chopping the Crisis Assessment Treatment Center, Portland swings a mean ax

By Steve Duin, The Oregonian, May 6, 2013

catc_map_62111In chopping CATC — the Crisis Assessment Treatment Center — off at the knees, Mayor Charlie Hales is only looking to finish what the Portland police started.

What remains to be seen is whether the cops’ stubbornness about the mental health facility is driving (a) the city’s budget priorities, and (b) a quick wedge between the mayor and Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen.

The timing of Hales’ announcement to eliminate $634,000 in CATC funding couldn’t have been worse, breaking even as the city announced a $2.3 million settlement for a deplorable cop shooting that left William Kyle Monroe, who suffers with bipolar disorder, permanently disabled.

But the mayor’s move also added to the perception — shared by the U.S. Department of Justice and many local mental-health advocates — that the police bureau considers its dealing with the mentally ill a colossal inconvenience.

After Cogen and former Mayor Sam Adams opened CATC with great ceremony in 2011, the cops acted as if the triage center didn’t exist.

Capt. Sara Westbrook, head of the behavioral health unit, dismissed the center as unworkable for police last spring, and remained wedded to her objections on its admission guidelines long after CATC revised them.

As The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein reported over the weekend, many patrol officers never knew CATC was an option. Never mind that almost 200 of the 1,300 people treated there were first dropped off by police at local emergency rooms.

“This wasn’t designed to make the cops’ lives easier,” Cogen reminds us. “This was designed for people having a mental health crisis. The real focus is that these 1,300 people have a place to go so they don’t run into the cops.”

Small wonder if Cogen feels betrayed. He partnered with Adams on CATC funding when partnering with Adams wasn’t easy. Briefed on potential budget cuts by Hales, he asked for one lone reprieve.

“I said to him very clearly, ‘The one I really hope you don’t cut is CATC,’” Cogen said.

The preliminary proposal was submitted for Hales’ consideration by Commissioners Nick Fish and Steve Novick.

Fish is holding fast to his original diagnosis.

“We were charged with being provocative,” he said Sunday. “This is a healthy debate, and long overdue. And the more I look into this, the more I hear that there have been a lot of misgivings about CATC.”

Novick has a different take. Given the city’s financial stake in the center, he says, “It puzzles me that Sam never followed up to see if the cops were using it.”

Even more striking, he says, were the contradictory narratives that city commissioners heard from the police and county leaders garnered from their people about the facility.  “From the very beginning,” Novick says, “there have been two conflicting messages.”

Westbrook continued to argue CATC wouldn’t accept people who were a threat to themselves or others long after the center was beaming up a different message with the bat signal.

As Kevin McChesney at Telecare, which operates the center for the county, told Bernstein, its doors are open to anyone short of “the person swinging an ax.”

If there’s a lesson here about police bureau mulishness, there’s another one about leadership and attention to detail.

“Normally, the efficient and right thing for a political leader to do is listen to your staff people and trust what they’re telling you,” Novick said.

“But you have two organizations here — mental health and the police — who don’t naturally speak the same language. They got locked into these positions over the last year and a half.”

Which proves? “There are situations where political leaders need to dig into the weeds and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ Read the documents. See if there isn’t a misunderstanding instead of blindly following what their people are telling them.”

Novick met with Cogen on Monday. Off what he heard, he said, “There’s a stronger argument that the city should fund a portion of the CATC than I thought there was based on the information I had last week.”

Is that cause for Portland cops to join the conversation? Time will tell. Historians are skeptical.