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Mayor and Police Chief Take Aim at Mental Health Crisis

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Last week, Tyrone Waters—who was shot by Portland police in September 2001, as he clutched a pellet gun during a psychotic episode on his neighbor's front porch—made an appeal to Police Chief Rosie Sizer. At the chief's bimonthly forum, Waters asked Sizer to take the lead on making sure her officers are better equipped to de-escalate conflicts with mentally ill people, especially in light of the James Chasse Jr. case.

Sizer and Mayor Tom Potter have both pledged to address the issues of mental health services and police training in the weeks since Chasse—who suffered from schizophrenia—died on September 17 in police custody ("Death in Custody," News, Sept 28).

Waters—who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1995—says he was "too scared" to obey police instructions on the night he was shot. He says he's "lucky to be alive," after one officer shot at him five times with live rounds, but missed—he was, however, hit three times with beanbag rounds by the other officers.

"I'm a survivor of the mental health system," he told Sizer at the forum. "More can be done in police training to address dealing with the mentally ill, and budget shortfalls are no excuse."

Afterward, both Sizer and Assistant Chief Lynnae Berg thanked Waters for coming, and assured him they would work on addressing his concerns—but couldn't give a timeframe.

"I ended up by saying, 'I really hope you're sincere,'" says Waters, who describes Chasse's death as a "tragedy that did not need to happen."

Waters wants officer training, both in Portland and on the state level, to place more emphasis on de-escalation, and in a consistent fashion.

Currently, officer training in the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) is anything but consistent. All officers receive between 10 to 12 hours of training in crisis intervention—which addresses de-escalation—on top of their basic training. Just 120 Portland police officers have completed a full 40-hour crisis intervention course, coordinated by Officer Paul Ware. Ware does not think the three officers involved in Chasse's death had gone through the crisis intervention course.

"When crisis intervention is embraced by the community and police, it can work," he says, declining to speculate on whether it could have prevented Chasse's death.

One officer on every shift is supposed to have undergone the full 40-hour training, but "the odds of that officer being there when a situation arises are pretty low," says Dan Handelman—who heads up activist group Portland Copwatch.

Such inconsistency is intolerable to Oregon State Senator Avel Gordly, whose 2005 bill reforming policies concerning the "use of deadly force by officers" was instrumental in pushing the PPB to increase its basic training from just eight weeks to 16. But it's still not enough, she says.

"We're so far below the national standard, which is between 21 and 22 weeks," says Gordly, who happens to be Waters' mother. "We need every officer, statewide, to receive crisis intervention training—at the moment, we don't know that an officer arriving at the scene is an officer who's received that training, and we need to remove that uncertainty."

But Portland's mental health crisis is not just a police training issue—there's also a lack of services for those with mental health problems. Since 2002, the funding for Cascadia—Multnomah County's biggest provider of mental health services—has been slashed at the state level by 33 percent: from $12 million to $8 million, leaving inadequately trained cops and jail staff to pick up the slack.

"When the funding was cut, we saw an increase in emergency room visits, and there were one or two tragedies we could directly link to the lack of money," says Cascadia Director Leslie Ford. Ford says the funding cuts were made when the state budget showed all-around deficits, and she hopes some of the new found state surplus will find its way back into the mental health system.

On September 25, a week after Chasse's death, Mayor Potter pledged to "work with others to begin making real changes," calling for "a solution that includes our correctional system, medical and mental health providers." 

Potter's spokesperson met with Mental Health Association Secretary Jason Renaud last Thursday to ask for advice on involving mental health agencies in changing the current system. Renaud says Potter needs to be careful to avoid repeating Multnomah County's 2000-2003 "mental health redesign," which cost millions of dollars although "ultimately, at an outcome level, most of it failed."

Renaud says one of the biggest problems facing Potter and Sizer is that the five agencies working for mental health in Multnomah County fail to talk to each other—indeed, they're often prohibited from doing so under federal law.

Renaud points out that Chasse was already involved in a clinical relationship with Cascadia before his death. While Cascadia is prevented from sharing information about those it treats with other agencies, including the police, Renaud feels such inter-agency communication might have averted Chasse's death—it's here that he's urging Potter to work for change.

The mayor and Chief Sizer will make statements aiming to address these issues following the outcome of the grand jury investigation into Chasse's death: A decision on whether or not the officers involved in Chasse's death will be indicted is expected early next week. In the meantime, Renaud is urging the officials to shoulder their responsibility with care.

"There's a lot of reasons why people might not respond to the police like a dog responds to a whistle," says Renaud. "But those are the people that need to feel safe. That's justice, in the end. The best memorial for Jim [Chasse] would be justice."

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