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What Happened to James Chasse: IN MY OPINION - POLICE AND THE MENTALLY ILL - Relieving the burden on the justice system

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

IN MY OPINION - POLICE AND THE MENTALLY ILL - Relieving the burden on the justice system

from The Oregonian, by Leslie Ford

We can all agree that the recent death of James Phillip Chasse Jr. is a tragedy. And I share Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer's view that Multnomah County's mental health system does not have adequate resources to do all that needs to be done. As a result, Sizer is right to say that too much of the burden falls to the police and jails.

Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare's Project Respond, the county's mental health crisis outreach program for the last 13 years, and the Portland Police Bureau work together regularly when officers suspect mental illness is involved in a police call. When police contact Project Respond, its staff is quickly on the scene to work with officers to help deal with the unique challenges these situations pose. Project Respond has trained mental health professionals who can recognize situations that are the result of mental illness and can help de-escalate them without the use of force.

While I don't second-guess any officer's decision, Project Respond was not contacted in the Chasse case. And the results were tragic, not only for Chasse, but for the officers involved and the witnesses who were shocked by the incident.

As a community, we must continue to acknowledge the unique challenges that mental illness pose for law enforcement. What is needed is a commitment to continue training officers to recognize mental illness and to access community resources to effectively deal with these challenges.

Ideally, all police officers would receive the crisis intervention team training that currently is provided to only a portion of the force. This intensive training in recognizing mental illness, in using verbal de-escalation skills and in identifying community resources ensures that officers are equipped to deal most appropriately with individuals with mental illness.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are taking the first steps toward making this a required training. In our state, Cascadia is active with Oregon Partners In Crisis, a group of criminal justice professionals, elected officials, consumers and attorneys in advocating for more crisis intervention team availability as well as programs to divert the mentally ill from our jails.

Police need to be able to recognize mental illness and work more effectively with someone who is experiencing a different reality. Research around crisis intervention team training consistently shows that its techniques lead to fewer arrests needed and less force required when an arrest has to be made.

Through pro-active steps, crisis intervention organizations can help take the burden off an already overtaxed judicial system and treat the mentally ill while successfully integrating them back into the community. Treatment of the mentally ill is considerably more humane, more beneficial to the community and less expensive than the cost to taxpayers each time someone is arrested.

We all need to take some of the responsibility for society's problems. Taking advantage of community-based programs that are successfully treating mental health problems needs to be part of the solution.

Leslie Ford is chief executive officer of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare.

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