Take the police out of crisis intervention business

From the current edition of Street Roots

Sam Adams, we have a very large problem on our hands.

It’s a practical problem for me, for every other medical professional in Portland, for leaders in the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and the disabilities community in general. For the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and neighbors and employers and friends and lovers.

Who do I call in a crisis?

Because I can’t in good conscience say to call the police. That route, without extensive and public repairs, is washed out.  Even if you and I can rationalize about what happened to Aaron Campbell and to Jamal Green and to Lisa Coppock and Deontae Keller and Sir Millage and to Dickie Dow and to James Chasse and to James Perez and to Kendra James and to Jose Mejia Poot — if even together we can agree these bad outcomes are the exception and not the rule, our agreement is meaningless to the Marva Campbell who calls tonight.

What should I tell tonight’s Marva Campbell?

If I tell her to call the police, what runs through her mind is this: The person I am speaking to is dangerous and if I heedlessly follow his instructions my child might get killed like that guy out on Sandy Boulevard.

How can community leaders advise young men and women about potential encounters with the police?

If they say comply with the police instructions, what runs through those young minds is this: The person advising me is ignoring the basic evidence that police in Portland shoot people who are trying to surrender, set dogs on them, leave them to bleed to death in front of their friends and family members.  I saw it on the news, and a grand jury and the mayor agree with me.

Sam, you have, by leaving the issue of police oversight and accountability in the hands of persons who neither have interest or skills to understand them, endangered our community. You’ve inadvertently, and unintentionally we think, undermined the credibility of the police commissioner, the police chief, the 911 process, police officers, and persons who are professionally and personally allied to police work.

For years we have, in various ways, supported the notion that, like it or not, the police play a vital role in the continuum of care for persons with mental illness and addiction. We can no longer do this.

The effect should be budgetary – not legal.  If the PPB has lost the community’s franchise for safekeeping, if the social contract is torn and stained, the next logical step, in this budget season, is to recognize the value of intervention by social services — in public schools, in recreation, in health care. Dollars spent on police work need to follow the problem, not be stuck in long-term contracts with ill-trained, over-pensioned, dangerous cops.

Over the duration, police administrators will use all sorts of public-relations tricks to cosy up to our community, make nice, say “trust us,” say “fund us,” say “allow us,” with the implict threat of abandonment.  Expect they’ll draw swords over cuts to their budget which reflect broken trust. Can you solve this problem, Sam? Sure. Become the police commissioner now.

Dan Saltzman is a good man in a bad position. There are a half dozen items in your portfolio he could take on and do well.  The buck stops with you. Because of Saltzman, Schrunk and Sizer’s mutual inability to act — for whatever reason — all heads are swiveling in your direction. You are the mayor. Ignore the catcalls. The buck stops with you.

Begin an outside search for a new police chief now. Make this known and dragoon a public committee to vet prospects. Call for and lead a coalition of law enforcement executives to prepare and march to Salem and demand funds for mental health and addiction treatment, especially for persons who are marginalized, including people with severe and persistent mental illness and minorities. Westerman, Wheeler, Kroger and I will join you arm-in-arm. Take the police out of the crisis intervention process where it is inappropriate. Multnomah County has an excellent crisis intervention line; unfortunately the phone number is buried in the Blue Pages of the phone book. It needs to be made more prominent to give people in crisis an alternative to reflexively dialing 911.

Acknowledge that gaining cultural competency, especially in an institution or bureaucracy, is a constant; we are all life-long learners.  We can do better and can show how we will do better. Show how the Police Bureau will do better — in recruitment, in training, in supervision, in leadership.

Yes, there will be a lawsuit. Don’t hide behind it. You can still speak openly and forthrightly about how to keep the police bureau accountable and therefore credible, without discussing the legal strategy of the case or proffering an opinion about the outcome.

Acknowledge the family has a right to sue and the officer has the right to a defense, and turn the question back to the future. The cost of doing business the way it has always been done has become too high, not just financially but in human lives. Something fundamental needs to change. There is no longer time to delay.

By Michael Hopcroft with the Mental Health Association of Portland.

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One response to “Take the police out of crisis intervention business

  1. Pingback: Mental Health Association of Portland » Blog Archive » Response to Saltzman, Sizer, Fritz proposal: now do it.

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