As Bend continues to grow, the quaint "town" increasingly faces challenges more commonly associated with big city life. One of which is determining how best to support people experiencing mental health crises, and how to prevent crime. To that end, in October, City Council approved the hiring of three additional full-time staff for the Bend Police Department to create a Community Response Team—a major addition to the squad and an effort to keep in step with national law enforcement trends.
"We have tracked the rise of mental health calls," Police Chief Jim Porter says. "Before we made a decisive move, wanted to make sure it wasn't an anomaly."
Porter says the department has seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls related to mental health concerns. These range from "someone is laying in the bushes" up to "there's someone on floor with 17 stab wounds in them," Porter explains, referencing the recent stabbing of a COCC student.
"The object is to interdict these cases before they reach that point," he adds.
The number of mental health calls Bend police officers respond to has increased by nearly 64 percent over the past three years—an average of 3.3 calls per day. It may not seem like a lot, but Porter explains that these calls can be particularly time-consuming. Because mental health calls often involve an individual who is unpredictable and requires follow-up care, one call may take as many as four officers and up to 5 hours in a hospital emergency room, waiting for help.
In an ideal world, people experiencing mental and emotional distress would receive the healthcare they need to stay safe and healthy, and would pop up on police radar only rarely. But that's not the reality.
According to a recent study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, jails hold more people experiencing severe mental illness than state hospitals do. And it estimates that about 15 percent of prison inmates suffer from severe mental illness. But jails don't offer the help they need and using jails to hold them pulls away time, money and other resources that could go to addressing serious crimes.
"I asked officers what was the number one draw on their time, and mental health came up most frequently," Porter says.
So he looked to other programs at police departments across the nation—San Antonio, in particular, served as inspiration. In San Antonio and surrounding Bexar County, prisons were at their max capacity. So police developed a program that has served as a national model. By attempting to divert people with serious mental illness into treatment, rather than into jail, the city not only reduced crowding but also saved $50 million dollars over five years.
The key was figuring out which elements of those programs the Bend Police Department could afford to adopt while staying within tight budget constraints. Porter found that teaming up with mental health providers got good results without requiring an unachievable investment. To that end, the department is working with Deschutes County Behavioral Health and St. Charles Medical Center to respond to these crises in a way that supports those needing help without tying up police.
"This is real outside-the-box thinking for traditional law enforcement," Porter says. "Our job is not to provide mental health resources, per se."
Police departments across the country are increasingly developing crisis intervention teams trained in best practices for responding to mental illness. These trainings first emerged after a shooting in the late 1980s of a suicidal man in Tennessee and are sometimes referred to as the "Memphis Model."
Porter is hoping that this new Community Response Team, likely to hit the streets early next year, will reduce the cost to the community by shifting the focus to prevention and early intervention.
"The great thing about the new Community Response Team is that there will be dedicated officers that will respond to all the mental health calls," says Holly McCown, Community Assessment Team supervisor at Deschutes County Behavioral Health. "I foresee our team interfacing with them daily in any capacity we are needed, whether that be a consulting role or going out on the calls with them to conduct assessments. This new team will provide an opportunity for our teams to build an even stronger relationship and be involved in any prevention/outreach efforts so that we can really get the message out that we are a resource for people."
The county's four-person Mobile Crisis Team (MCAT) already works closely with local law enforcement, and the new program is expected to build on existing strengths. McCown says she is confident that this approach will be successful since it is based on best practices being implemented nation-wide.
"Our law enforcement does a great job already with mental health calls, but this team will allow them to expand the good work they do and choose specially trained and skilled officers, who enjoy doing this type of work, to respond in a consistent way," McCown explains.
These prevention-oriented positions require a particular skill set and personality type, Chief Jim Porter says. The new hires will be officers with an aptitude for the nuances of the job.
"On the mental health side, the officer needs to be calm, a good communicator, independent, and have a strong desire to do that," Porter explains. He adds that these kinds of calls can take a toll on officers, who he says like to be able to see things through to a satisfactory conclusion. That's not always possible with these cases.
"Cops are fixers," Porter says, "that's what we do."