Enough Platitudes: Potter Needs to Get Out the Checkbook and Fund Better Cop Training
Instead of apologizing and forming another hand-wringing commission in the wake of James Chasse Jr.'s death on September 17, Mayor Tom Potter could take the lead in making Portland safer for folks like Chasse, who suffered from schizophrenia—by writing the cops a check made out to the training department.
When the Mercury asked the mayor last Tuesday, October 17—following the Multnomah County Grand Jury's decision not to indict the police officers involved in Chasse's violent death—whether families of those with mental health problems can still feel safe calling 911 in a crisis, he responded by musing, "I wish there was another number they could call."
There isn't another number. But as Potter himself pointed out, cuts in funding services for those suffering from mental illness mean police officers are increasingly being asked to meet their needs on the streets.
Despite this, only 155 of the 450 Portland patrol officers have gone through the bureau's 40-hour crisis intervention training (CIT) course, which addresses de-escalation in encounters with people suffering from mental illness, like Chasse.
Judging from the account of Officer Christopher Humphreys—who police investigators say accidentally fell on Chasse, directly causing his death—Chasse was certainly in crisis when the two met that Sunday evening on NW Everett near 13th.
"He sees me and we make this direct eye contact..." Officer Humphreys told investigating detectives. "I mean the only way I can describe it is just absolute sheer terror. On his face, his eyes go wide and... instantly when he sees me, it's just sheer terror."
An hour and 45 minutes later, Chasse was dead.
Officer Humphreys and his two partners had not been through CIT. It's speculation, of course—but could better training have prevented Chasse's death? Those close to the case believe it could have.
Police Chief Rosie Sizer told the Mercury last week she hopes her department will "do better serving those [in crisis like Chasse] in the future," but has only committed to training all new Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers in crisis intervention—not the untrained officers currently on her roster. Sizer would need more money to train those already on patrol.
"If the money were on the table to train all our officers in crisis intervention, we would take it," she told the Mercury this week.
That's where the mayor comes in: Mental health advocates argue that Potter's promise to have the newly formed Human Rights Commission look into incidents like Chasse's death should be complemented by finding the cash to support better police training.
Though Portland Police Association President Robert King said last week that any mention of the need for more training "looks like an implicit apology on behalf of the police bureau," it's still unlikely the union would turn down funding—additional training also means cops would be safer doing their jobs. King did not return the Mercury's calls.
"Some guys have big misconceptions about mental illness," says Officer Paul Ware, PPB's CIT coordinator. "But once they've met a schizophrenic for an hour, things change."
CIT includes training from 16 volunteer instructors in how to recognize and respond to schizophrenia and other mental health problems, like acute depression and suicidal intent. Officers also get the chance to tour mental health facilities and meet folks with mental health problems, to hear about their experiences firsthand.
"Imagine you're a schizophrenic and you're hearing voices," says Mark Schorr, director of staff development at Cascadia Behavioral Health. "They're like real voices on a tangled telephone line, except they're saying, 'You're scum' and 'They're trying to kill you.' Meanwhile the officer is saying, 'Put your hands in the air.'"
Schorr, who helped deliver the PPB's first CIT training sessions in the late '90s, says the training is not a "silver bullet" for all problems, but it's beneficial for both the cops and the community they serve—and would be well worth the money spent.
"I'm aware how much it costs to train people," he says. "But good training is the most proactive way to avoid trouble. It also lowers police anxiety because they'll feel more comfortable handling someone who may be acting strangely."
According to the Mercury's calculations, it would cost $581,550 to put Portland's 295 remaining patrol officers through the CIT course—a paltry figure compared to the $1.3 million lawsuit currently threatened against the city by former Police Chief Derrick Foxworth, or the $4.2 million in budget surplus funds Potter has said he'd like to spend upgrading the police record keeping system (not to mention Potter's estimated $800,000 combined salary and police pension over the course of his four-year term).
Here's how the cost breaks down: Other officers would have to cover their colleagues' shifts during the 40 hours of training, at an approximate overtime cost of $47.25 per hour for 295 officers, for a total of $557,550.
Eight additional CIT sessions over the next year—in addition to the two already planned—would be sufficient to train all the remaining patrol officers in the city.
While CIT trainers currently volunteer their time, if the trainers were paid for the additional sessions, it would cost $24,000—that's a rate of $75 per hour per trainer, considered a fair rate for a Masters graduate in clinical psychology qualified to deliver the training, according to Schorr at Cascadia. Grand total: $581,550. (Officer Ware, the CIT coordinator, concurs with the Mercury's calculations, but adds that unforeseen costs could bump the total closer to $1 million.)
The additional training is a great idea, according to Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk, whose office organized and prosecuted the Grand Jury trial of the officers involved in Chasse's death. He says the city needs to look not only at the cost of training all its officers, but also at the cost to the community of not doing so.
"I don't write the checks for the city," he says. "But while there's a fiscal cost to doing this training, if we can avoid these incidents, the credibility of the police and the confidence of the community in law enforcement would be greatly enhanced."
The city has paid for Officer Humphreys' reportedly violent behavior before: In March 2006, it paid $33,000 to a 19-year-old man, according to his attorney, Travis Eiva, who represented the case with his partner, Benjamin Haile. Officer Humphreys, alongside three other officers, allegedly struck the man across the shins and mid-section 30 times during a violent confrontation.
"I wonder how much the city coffers will have to bleed, not to mention mentally ill people brutalized," Eiva wrote on the blog bojack.org last weekend, "to make up for this lapse of judgment on the part of police officer training."
There is no doubting the effectiveness of CIT training—it's based on the "Memphis Model," instituted in Memphis in 1988 after a controversial shooting. There, Major Sam Cochran, who has spearheaded the training's implementation, says the impact has been "almost immeasurable in terms of community praise and goodwill toward the police department."
"How do you measure its success, knowing family members [of people with mental illnesses] will call us, knowing CIT will be part of our response—where previously they hesitated to call the police in a crisis?" he asks. "That was not a good commentary on our officers."
Cochran says it might not even be necessary to train all of Portland's patrol officers in the full CIT course. He suggests all Portland's patrol officers be given 16 to 18 hours of in-service training that covers the fundamentals of mental illness—as Memphis' officers have—if the 40-hour course is too big a stretch.
"It takes a certain caliber of officer to respond well to CIT," he says. "There needs to be judgment, maturity, passion, and commitment. Just as SWAT teams require a certain type of person, so does CIT's specialized approach."
So will Potter put his money where his mouth is, and take officers' training seriously? "We would not be opposed to doing this if $581,550 is the figure involved," says John Doussard at the mayor's office. But will Potter advocate for more training? Portland's safety is in his hands.