Police feel the weight of crisis response

Nicole Bales, The Daily Astorian, Ore.
·8 min read

Apr. 12—Sixteen people accounted for nearly 600 calls to the Astoria Police Department last year.

Many involved drinking in public, emotional outbursts, fighting, welfare checks, abandoned junk and trespassing. They often shared the common threads of homelessness, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

While most of the calls did not lead to arrests, court appearances or jail time, they placed a significant burden on police.

As Clatsop County and cities consider ways to provide housing and improve access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, police officers are asked to respond to recurring calls involving the same people in crisis.

"Our traditional options are very limited. So we end up doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same result, which is no result," Astoria Police Chief Geoff Spalding said.

"It's not necessarily the fault of the system, it's just the system isn't funded to the extent it should be," he said. "It's a huge challenge for us. If you were to take those (16) individuals and be able to address their behavior through whatever system you needed to use, and we could do that effectively and eliminate those calls for service, we would have so much more time on our hands. We could better respond to the emergency calls for service. We could provide a higher police presence in our community and do more community policing, all the things that our community would like us to do.

"But, unfortunately, that's where we spent a lot of our time. And it's not the best use of our time, but we don't have a choice, either."

'We're not always the end-all, be-all of solutions'

Astoria Deputy Chief Eric Halverson said officers get to know the people they frequently encounter and spend a lot of time encouraging people to change their behavior and engage in services.

Over the past several years, there has been more recognition locally that law enforcement is not separate from mental health and other social services, and there is a deeper understanding of their distinct roles, limitations and legal obligations.

However, there is still a misconception that calling the police can solve issues that are often rooted in chronic, complex social problems.

"And I think that's a piece that sometimes the community doesn't understand, is that a lot of people think that you can call the police and that we can make people do certain things," Halverson said. "Sometimes we can. A lot of times we can't. And we're not always the end-all, be-all of solutions. We're there to deal with the bad behavior, knowing it's going to return if we don't find the deeper solution."

In Oregon and across the United States, there is movement toward having mental health or social services advocates answer some crisis response calls, either with police officers or instead of police. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has sought to enhance federal Medicaid funding so states can expand on ideas like CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program of the White Bird Clinic in Eugene.

Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, the county's mental health provider, has a mobile crisis team available to help law enforcement, but inadequate funding and staffing has made it a less useful resource for police. The mental health agency also hopes to open a rapid access center in Astoria, providing clinical drop-in services for mental health and substance abuse. A crisis respite center in Warrenton was initially pitched to serve a similar purpose, but the agency has found financial sustainability for the respite center in short-term crisis care and long-term residential services.

Beacon Clubhouse, supported by the Clatsop County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a membership-based community center for people with mental health issues at the First Baptist Church on Seventh Street.

Two new homeless liaisons, hired to work under Clatsop Community Action, will do outreach and help connect vulnerable people to resources.

A new county jail at the former North Coast Youth Correctional Facility in Warrenton will provide more space and relieve pressure to release inmates early, which has often been the practice at the jail in Astoria because of overcrowding.

Police make arrests for crimes such as assault and issue citations for lesser offenses, but many of the people they frequently respond to do not usually engage in the types of behavior that leads to substantial jail time. Many also do not meet the criteria under state law to be forced into treatment, which means they have to voluntarily agree to seek help.

Police, hospital administrators and mental health providers have said that Oregon's high threshold for civil commitment is one of the biggest barriers to helping people in crisis. A court must find that a person has a mental disorder that poses a danger to themselves or others or they are unable to provide for basic personal needs like health and safety.

"There's been a lot of talk over this past year about police not being involved in particular things that really shouldn't be in their wheelhouse, like dealing with mental health calls," Halverson said. "But what we end up seeing is we do reach out for those resources and they do try to provide the resources. But then when the person refuses to accept those resources, it's back to calling the police."

Over time, officers witness a familiar cycle that often ends badly.

"And the officers are not cold to that," Halverson said. "You have to develop relationships with these people and you see that they need assistance. And it's so frustrating because we're in a business where our job is to try and problem-solve and fix things. And when you keep on trying to tape it together and you can't quite get it fixed over and over and over again, it can be very frustrating for the officers who are responding to these things.

"And people might not see that in law enforcement, but it does affect officers that are trying."

Kirk Wintermute, an Astoria attorney and president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Clatsop County, called it "a slow rolling crisis.

"It's frustrating for everybody in the system to be dealing with. I mean, I know that the police are not mental health first responders and the jail are not mental health providers, but they're kind of ending up in that situation," he said. "And I'm not a psychologist and I'm not a psychiatrist, but I end up doing a lot of that work sometimes it seems like, too.

"It just seems like there's just such a failure of the system and it's landing on these people who are the most vulnerable."

Both Wintermute and Halverson said they are open to the state Legislature reviewing the civil commitment law.

"It should be a stringent process — they're taking away people's liberty," Wintermute said. "But we also end up with people in this gap where they might be committable under a more loosened process, but they're not and so they get released oftentimes without much planning or much support because they're on the street or they're mentally ill and they can't engage."

Wintermute said he has represented people in court who he believes should have been committed or engaged in mental health services.

"But because mental health either can't or doesn't have the resources to engage them, they end up in the criminal justice system and then they end up in the state hospital," he said. "But that's not what that process was built for. And so it's a round peg in a square hole and it's not good for anybody, frankly. It's more expensive. It's more traumatizing for the defendant. It doesn't work."

'What does this person need?'

There are undercurrents of frustration and urgency among law enforcement leaders and social services advocates. Calls tied to crisis response have surged during the coronavirus pandemic. Two people in Clatsop County with mental health and substance abuse issues were killed last year after interactions with police.

In January, in an announcement meant to draw attention to the lack of mental health treatment options, Gearhart Police Chief Jeff Bowman said his officers would no longer respond to mental health calls unless there is an imminent threat of physical harm.

In February, Astoria took a tougher approach to bad behavior at the park at Ninth and Astor streets after tracking 470 calls for service last year. The tipping point came after a stabbing and an attack with a machete.

Spalding said it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is needed, but he knows there is no single answer.

"Especially if you're talking about dealing with individuals who are homeless, too. I think there's a lot of people that feel that we need to have more housing and we need a place for somebody to go," the police chief said. "I've heard lots and lots of stories about providing housing for homeless individuals, and they stay there for a night or two, then they're back on the street again. It doesn't work for (some of) them.

"Even if you provided housing, there's a lot of them that won't take avail of that. Some of them won't work regardless of what you do. There's certain individuals that are only going to do so much when you get to a certain point," he said. "That's why I just think there's so many different ways to approach it. It's almost like you have to take each individual, triage them and say, 'What does this person need?'

"I think if you address the root of the problem, ultimately you're going to address the behavior that we're seeing."