Many cities across the United States continue to grapple with the fallout of the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd by police officers.
Floyd’s death last May brought the issue of racial discrimination in policing to the forefront of the public’s consciousness and sparked some of the most intense protests the country has seen since the 1960s. In response, many cities have started to look inward and examine what they might be able to do to address the concerns raised by Floyd’s killing.
In Tualatin, one of those responses is a public conversation over police use of force, their response to persons in crisis, and other related issues. The City and the Tualatin Police Department concluded a series of three public meetings last month that allowed residents to ask police directly about these issues and its policies. The third and final meeting in Tualatin’s “Community Conversation on Police Use of Force” was held Dec. 9 at the Juanita Pohl Center.
How police handle calls involving persons experiencing homelessness, a mental health crisis, or both, are among the most critical questions faced by police across the country, and Tualatin is no exception. Tualatin Police Chief Bill Steele said his department’s officers respond to these types of calls on a near daily basis. He admitted that additional resources to help with this task would be welcomed with open arms.
“Those aren’t the type of calls our officers are looking forward to dealing with when they come to work,” Steele said. “By all means, we are trying to help in any way we can. But if that workload went to someone else who could handle that kind of call better, I don’t think you’re going to get much resistance from police officers.”
The City of Eugene has received national publicity for its Crisis Assistance Helping Out on The Street, or CAHOOTS, program. This program has been in place for three decades and features mobile crisis intervention that helps Eugene Police by sending staff from the White Bird Clinic in City-owned vehicles to provide initial contact and transport for people who are intoxicated, mentally ill, or disoriented, as well as transport for some non-emergency medical care.
In Washington County, the Sheriff’s Office has started to emulate CAHOOTS in recent years with its Mental Health Response Team (MHRT). This program pairs a sheriff’s deputy and a clinician from the Mental Health Crisis Team to offer a rapid response to calls involving a mental health crisis. The team also provides follow-up with individuals to ensure services and support. The MHRT is available to respond to requests for assistance from local police departments and answered over 4,800 calls for service across Washington County in 2019 alone.
“It is aligned somewhat closely with the CAHOOTS program,” Steele said. “And they respond to lower level non-police type calls. It’s a little different than what we have access to here in Washington County. But it is expanding and we are making sure we have access to resources in Tualatin when needed. I’m fairly confident with the resources we have available to us, and it’s something that’s definitely on the front burner of what we make sure our officers and community members have access to in a timely manner.”
Kristin Burke, the County’s Community Mental Health Program Director, said at a Dec. 8 meeting of the Washington County Board of Commissioners that the Mental Health Response Team is just one part of a “robust” suite of services available in Washington County. Another important asset is the Behavioral Health Mobile Crisis Team.
“They are able to go out in the community and get to people who aren’t able to get to the Hawthorn walk-in center or otherwise get care,” Burke said. “Our mobile crisis team can go out any time of the day and really meet with a person in-person, at their home, a community center, anywhere they present.”
Currently, the County is engaged in a wide-ranging study of its behavioral health response system to examine where gaps exist and how to best address them. The study involves law enforcement, emergency medical responders and other parties that regularly are involved in this area.
“We expect that some recommendations could include partnering with EMS to see which elements of the CAHOOTS model would be appropriate,” Burke told commissioners.
Tualatin resident Scott Mitton asked Steele if there is anything done on the 911 dispatch system to route calls involving mental health crisis directly to the MHRT.
“Does it go to police and police make a decision on whether to call in support?” he asked.
Steele said that, currently, 911 calls reporting persons in crisis are sent directly to law enforcement for response. Discussions are ongoing across the county, he added, to determine whether a new approach to homeless or mentally ill individuals might be warranted.
The problem right now, said Captain Greg Pickering, who supervises Tualatin Police patrol officers, is that available resources for the MHRT are limited.
“They do come on shift mid-morning, seven days a week coverage,” Pickering said. “But that’s for the entire county. They will typically go call to call throughout the county because that resource is used so frequently and there is such great need.”
The advantage of having a clinician involved in first response is the additional options they offer, including access to a network of hospitals, clinics and medical information.
“Basically, they are going to have access to different information than a police officer will,” Steele said. “So, not only do you have someone to help you engage in conversation with someone who is in crisis, they have access to different information, as well.”
This specific issue is only increasing in frequency and severity across society, he added. The result is that police are increasingly asked to handle matters that cut into actual criminal prevention or investigation.
“That number seems to increase every year,” he said. “It just seems to be something our officers are dealing with on a fairly regular basis, daily, if not every other day at a minimum.”