There’s plenty of blame to spread around

By columnist Margie Boule. From the Oregonian, August 30, 1994

[This column refers to the police shooting death of Gale Moody – MHAP eds.]

Fielding phone calls last week, I felt as if I were back in college, responding to criticism of our student anti-war protest.

“Your column about the mentally ill woman who was shot was pathetic,” said a man named Bob Lair. “Are you a professional police officer? Were you there? If not, you have no right to comment.” (“Are you in the military? Have you ever been? If not, you have no right to protest a war you know nothing about.”)

I thought the critics were wrong back in 1970, and I think they’re wrong today. People in our society — private citizens or journalists — have a right to criticize. No public agency should be protected from suggestions or criticism from taxpayers.

Having defended my right to criticize, I’d now like to spread around some praise. Every police officer I have ever encountered, even under situations of great stress, has responded professionally and even courageously. I do not hate the police, and I do not have a vendetta against officers, as was suggested by a number of angry people.

My criticism of last week’s shooting was not directed toward the actions of the officer who pulled the trigger, either. For the record, and because so many folks were confused about my comments, here’s where I cast the blame:

THE POLICE: 1. From the accounts of seven eye witnesses I spoke with, it’s hard to understand why the Gresham police chose to use pepper spray on a confused woman who was sitting in the aisle of a grocery store. Store managers had been quietly dealing with her for quite a while before officers arrived. A trained hostage negotiator was en route to the store. What was the rush? The police won’t say.

2. No mental health professionals were called to the scene. In New Orleans, it’s against the law for police to take action against a mentally ill person until a mental health professional is there, unless the sick person has committed a major felony. The only crime the woman in the grocery store had committed was smoking in a public place.

But far more blame should be placed on THE SYSTEM: 1. Oregon has been closing large mental hospitals. And although mental health leaders deny it, according to every police officer I spoke with last week, mentally ill people are living on the streets as a result. “These are people who didn’t used to be out,” says Portland Police Officer Mike Gallagher, “and there’s a lot more of them now.”

2. To make matters worse, a new law went into effect on July 1 that ties the hands of the police when dealing with mentally ill people. “We used to be able to do a police hold and a hospital would hold a person three days for evaluation,” says Gallagher. “Now all we can do is transport them to a hospital, and the hospital decides whether to keep them. A lot of times, whether or not the person has insurance determines whether they’ll keep the person. They won’t admit that to you, though.”

He’s right: the hospitals deny it. They say the county pays for those without insurance, so there’s no financial reason to turn anyone away. “But it’s the first question they ask, and they’ve never accepted one person I’ve brought in without insurance,” says an officer who doesn’t want his name printed. “It also takes from four to six hours of my time with the new law, where it used to take one hour.”

3. Because of court decisions and new laws, it is now extremely difficult to hospitalize a mentally ill person against his or her wishes. “My mother has schizophrenia,” said a woman caller. “It took me a year and a half of constant work to get her committed. Before that I kept taking her to the hospital and they wouldn’t help her.”

4. In part, sick people are turned away because there aren’t enough beds. “We have fewer acute hospital beds available to us with the admissions unit closing at Dammasch,” explains Sue Beattie of Mental Health Services West. “It’s harder to find a bed. Police officers are being tied up for much longer.”

“And if we can’t get them a bed, we have to let them go,” says Scott Rush, a deputy in Clackamas County.

Because we haven’t provided enough beds, or treatment facilities, or funding for treatment for the mentally ill, they are filling the streets. Most are not dangerous to themselves or others. But some are.

And it’s the police — often with little training in how to deal with the mentally ill — who are forced to spend time, and take risks, to deal with them. “I think it’s important to remember that the officer shot the bullet into the woman in Gresham, but it’s society that killed her,” said the woman whose mother has schizophrenia. “Because society did not get her the help she needed.”