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What Happened to James Chasse: Potter wants $500,000 to train police to deal with mentally ill

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Potter wants $500,000 to train police to deal with mentally ill

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein

Mayor Tom Potter announced Monday he wants to set aside $500,000 over the next two years to help Portland police run all patrol officers through 40 hours of specialized training on how to deal with people suffering from a mental illness.

Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer says she's committed to accomplishing that goal and becoming the first major metropolitan police agency to do so, but said it'll take "tremendous effort."

Sizer wants all new recruits next year to complete Crisis Intervention Training before they're assigned to patrol. Further, she intends to start one CIT class a month beginning in January for 30 street officers and continue that for as long as two years.

"I think that is doable and sustainable," Sizer said Monday. "I feel like our community is demanding a higher level of competency on mental health issues, and their demand should matter to us."

Last month's death of James P. Chasse Jr. in police custody has drawn renewed attention to police training. Chasse, 42, suffered from schizophrenia, but the three officers involved in Chasse's case did not suspect he had a mental illness when they approached him. They thought he was either on drugs or drunk. The three officers were not certified in crisis intervention.

Nationally, law enforcement is altering tactics because police frequently are the first contact with people who suffer mental illness.

"Any additional training we can provide them is worth the investment for our community," Potter said.

Mental health advocates praise the specialized training, which focuses on avoiding crises through communication. They say the traditional police tactics of establishing immediate command and control can feed the paranoid delusions of an unstable person and spur a violent confrontation.

Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, said Monday that while the union supports any increased training, "it would of course not changed the encounter with Mr. Chasse. Until our community gets serious about helping the mentally ill, it won't matter how much training we have."

Portland's 40 hours of crisis training for officers has been voluntary since the program began in 1994 under former Chief Charles Moose. Portland police and mental health advocates, including psychologists and psychiatrists, provide the instruction, which includes classroom and realistic scenario-training. The officers are taught how to approach and talk to someone in crisis to defuse a situation before it escalates into violence, said Officer Paul Ware, the bureau's CIT coordinator.

One out of every seven of Portland's 699 patrol officers are now CIT-certified. There are 155 Portland CIT-certified officers; of those, 103 officers are on the street assigned to the bureau's five precincts.

Beckie Child of the Mental Health Association of Oregon said delegates to a mental health conference held in Portland last week signed a petition pressing the mayor to commit to training all cops in crisis intervention, and to do so within six months.

Potter is seeking $250,000 this year from unanticipated city revenue to help certify 150 to 180 patrol officers in crisis intervention training through June. He wants to set aside another $250,000 in next year's budget for continued CIT classes and eventually have all sworn officers certified.

Yet the Memphis, Tenn., officer who first developed the training cautioned that extending it to every officer is not the best idea. He favors maintaining a specialized unit of trained officers available on every shift.

"Just like there's some officers who are not suited to be on a SWAT team, truth of the matter is there's some officers who are not suited to be CIT officers," said Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis Police Department. "It takes a special talent, special skill to deal with a population that is in the midst of a mental health crisis."

Sizer said that's been debated within the bureau since the CIT program began. "I don't think every officer will absorb the lessons at the same rate," she said, "but at the very least it will provide officers greater sensitivity around mental health issues."

Portland officers certified in crisis intervention training were available to respond to only one-third of the calls involving the mentally ill, in each of the past three years, bureau statistics show. In 2005, for example, there were 2,078 calls dealing with someone with mental health problems. A CIT officer was on the scene for 31 percent, or 634 of those calls.

The number of calls involving people suffering from mental illness is growing. In 2005, there were 2,078, up from 1,999 in 2004 and 1,907 in 2003.

The Police Assessment Resource Center, an outside consultant that reviewed Portland officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody, said the bureau's CIT-response rate suggests the bureau "does not provide as comprehensive a CIT service as it might." At the very least, the bureau should ensure it trains enough CIT officers so an adequate number are available on every shift, the center recommended in 2005.

"Certainly, if we had more people who are CIT-certified," Sizer said, "we'd have a higher ability to get officers out to those calls more frequently."

Cost savings possible

Training all patrol officers is costly and logistically difficult, police say, because it requires paying overtime to cover the costs of filling shifts while officers are pulled off the street for the training, as well as paying instructors' salaries.

But the Los Angeles-based police consultant predicted a cost savings: Having all officers CIT-trained should reduce police-involved shootings and deaths-in-custody and save the city money by not having to deal with the consequences of such cases.

In the Portland training, officers are provided an overview of the county's mental health system, a description of mental illnesses and the symptoms officers are most likely to see on duty. A key component is a full day of scenario-training, where mental health experts portray mentally ill people and officers must figure out the best way to deal with them. Their actions are evaluated by mental health experts. Another day is spent visiting residential programs and outpatient centers and meeting clients.

Portland police also have a community partner, Project Respond, which provides mental health specialists who can be called to assist officers on the street. They are requested 40 to 50 times a month by Portland officers, Ware estimated. When they respond, officers remain on scene but let the specialists handle the call.

Training higher than most

The Portland police training, as is stands, is more than most other officers in the state get.

The state agency that runs the basic police academy in Oregon now offers only three hours of classroom training on dealing with the mentally ill, as part of its 10-week academy for police recruits.

"What we currently provide would nowhere near . . . prepare an officer to appropriately or adequately deal with the wide range of folks experiencing mental health issues," said Cameron Campbell, director of training for the Oregon Department of Public Safety, Standards and Training.

In January, the state's basic police academy will be extended from 10 to 16 weeks, and the training on dealing with the mentally ill will increase as well. Instead of three hours of classroom instruction, there will be 12 hours of classroom instruction. New will be eight to 10 hours of scenario-based training, with instructors portraying people suffering from delusions, schizophrenia or personality disorders.

Expectations debated

Shortly after Chasse's death, King called it an "unreasonable expectation" for police to be able to determine on the street whether someone is mentally ill, drunk or on drugs. Yet, the state's police training academy says that's part of the enhanced curriculum --asking an officer to "differentiate if someone is on drugs/alcohol or suffering a mental illness," by asking a person if they're involved in mental health services, or taking any medication, provided a person is cooperative.

Jason Renaud, a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, called King's comments unnerving. "I think that's ridiculous. That's not an unrealistic expectation. That's what his job is," Renaud said. "Their failure undermines public trust."

Ware said that sometimes officers only get a quick snapshot of somebody on the street. While it may be impossible to make a diagnosis in five to 10 seconds, Ware said, "CIT can help you make a better educated guess."

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