The Tualatin City Council last month approved a series of recommendations for improving police policies and practices centered around the use of force, de-escalation and responding to persons in mental health crisis.
The recommendations were part of a report that resulted from a series of community conversations on those topics held by the City in late 2020. The report found that while Tualatin residents overwhelmingly have a positive impression of the City’s police department, certain adjustments to policy were nonetheless needed going forward.
“We’re not like a lot of cities in the US where there is a very rough relationship between the community and their police department,” Mayor Frank Bubenik said. “We’re in a very good position that we don’t have to deal with that. But we do have one main issue that we have to deal with.”
Following the three public sessions held in October, November and December of last year, the final report recommends that the City examine six separate areas of policy with an eye toward making improvements. They are:
- Collaborating with regional partners to improve response to persons in mental health crisis.
- Ensure that use of force policies emphasize using the least amount of force possible.
- Ensure that use of force policies emphasize de-escalation techniques when reasonable.
- Increase officer training to recognize persons in mental health crisis.
- Increase officer training on cultural awareness and racial bias.
- And provide more regular updates to the City Council and the community, particularly on traffic stop and use of force data, as well as any officer misconduct that might take place.
The main issue at stake is also being discussed in the neighboring city of Tigard following the Jan. 6 shooting death by police of a man who witnesses say was in a mental health crisis at the time of his death.
“None of them were honestly a real surprise to us,” Police Chief Bill Steele said. “Some were ongoing, and some present some challenges that are going to be more difficult.”
When it comes to responding to people in mental health crisis, Tualatin faces the same issues as the rest of the country. Officers are called upon all too frequently to handle situations they are not adequately trained for and would be better handled by mental health specialists. The big problem there is resources, which are scarce even during the best of times.
However, Steele noted that Tualatin and other Washington County cities have resources available that many cities in Oregon do not. This includes a dedicated crisis intervention team and a mental health response team comprised of Sheriff’s deputies and mental health clinicians.
“The biggest issue we have is making sure we have those resources available to our community in a timely manner,” Steele said.
Future improvements in this area could include adoption of a mental health response model first used by the City of Eugene. Dubbed the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS model, it uses nurses and EMTs and experienced mental health workers from the White Bird Clinic. Using City of Eugene vehicles, they are dispatched to situations involving people who are mentally ill, disoriented or intoxicated. Police officers are called in only when necessary.
“Discussions are taking place to see what it would take to make that happen in our area,” Steele said. “There are a lot of steps underway to focus on to make sure we’re equipping our officers to handle these situations when they present themselves.”