Police officers in Hermiston deal with dozens of calls a day — and those calls sometimes involve a person going through a mental health crisis.
Hermiston police chief Jason Edmiston said while handling mental health cases isn’t typically in police officers’ job description, it seems to have become one of their daily tasks.
“The concept of ‘throw more training at the police’ instead of looking at the problem,” Edmiston said. “We’re trying to address the problem as best as possible.”
Edmiston said one of the biggest challenges is diagnosing a problem, and then directing the person to the correct place for help.
“It’s a growing problem,” Edmiston said of cases related to mental health issues or short-term mental health crises. “I think substance abuse plays a role in people in crisis. But mental illness being hereditary — that’s in play. As Hermiston grows, more people come through the area and our calls for service increase.”
Edmiston said while the long-term solution to mental health issues should not be police response, his officers have undergone Crisis Intervention Training for when problems arise.
The training helps officers learn about various issues related to mental illness.
“It’s a 40-hour course that varies depending on feedback from the previous one,” said Hermiston Police Captain Travis Eynon, the department liaison for the training.
About three-quarters of department staff go through the training, Edmiston said. The course covers drug and alcohol abuse, military trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, drug-induced psychosis and other mental health issues officer might encounter on calls.
“(The training) identifies what those issues are, and gives (officers) tools for how to deal with people experiencing them,” he said.
Edmiston said the officers learn to talk to people going through a mental health crisis, rather than talking at or down to them.
“We expect them to diagnose what’s going on in a matter of seconds,” he said, adding that a situation can escalate quickly. “It’s not meant to be tactical training, but educational — to get officers aware of what can be in play, to be on guard for issues in the immediate area.”
But Edmiston said it can be a challenge to deal with those kinds of issues — both for officers and others.
“We try to address those things and do a good job,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not illegal to suffer from mental illness. That’s a tough pill for people to swallow.”
Eynon said officers prepare to encounter any type of crisis.
“I don’t know that we see one more than others, except maybe drug or alcohol-related things,” he said. “We don’t always know if it’s drug-induced psychosis, the result of long-term drug use or mental issues first and then self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.”
Eynon added that before the department started doing crisis intervention training they dealt with mental health cases a little differently — with more frequent bookings so patients would be safe from physical harm. The training helps officers handle the situation before it gets to that point. and avoid using force.
“Are we seeing reciprocal results? I’d say yes. I think our officers are able to de-escalate or defuse a situation, and show people they’re trying to help,” Edmiston said.
Hermiston police have dealt with their share of mental health-related issues. On Dec. 31, 2012, the department had its first officer-involved shooting where a suspect died. A man robbed a bank, and then went across the street to a crowded liquor store. He demanded a bottle of liquor, and then drew a black pistol BB-gun, which officers thought was a semi-automatic weapon. Officers fired, and the man went down. He died later that day.
“It’s our belief based on the investigation and statements that the individual suffered from mental illness or a short-term crisis,” Edmiston said.
He recalled how his officers reacted to the incident, and some of the dangers with the training.
“If there’s a concern with this training, it’s that (officers) take their guard down to talk with the person, and you have to be able to do both — talk with the person, but keep your guard up — you never know what could happen.”
Kevin Campbell, chief executive officer of Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc., agreed that police involvement should not be the long-term solution to mental health crises.
“People call the police because they’re afraid an individual may kill themselves or others,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear associated with people having a psychotic condition. But we need to think of mental health crises as medical conditions rather than law enforcement conditions.”
Carol Eck of Lifeways, a mental health services provider in Umatilla County, said mental health counselors from the organization are always available to deal for such situations.
“I have Masters-level clinicians on-call 24 hours a day,” she said. “We go out on scene with the officer if they request it.”
She praised officers’ handling of mental health cases, citing the effects of crisis intervention training.
“They’re very adept,” she said. “Very good at working with individuals with mental issues, patient and able to decide the best place for that person to go.”
Eck said one of the drawbacks to the system is that if a person needs to be hospitalized for a psychiatric service, they have to go to the emergency room — and Oregon has a lack of emergency beds, which means those people are often kept waiting.
Kimberly Lindsey of the Morrow County-based Community Counseling Solutions said her organization has worked closely with local law enforcement for several years to provide mental health services to the surrounding areas.
“If it’s brought to law enforcement’s attention that there’s something that looks like a mental health issue, we get called to go to the scene,” Lindsey said, adding that her staff never go to a scene without law enforcement officials.
“They keep the perimeter and us safe, if a person is dangerous or violent,” she said.
“I can’t say it’s cut down on crises — it’s not really a preventative measure,” Lindsey said of the collaboration with officers. “But I think it reduces the trauma for both individuals and officers.”
Edmiston said he’d like to see more short-term care options for people going through crises.
“The answer is not to expect more from the police, yet tie the hands of police to do their job,” he said. “‘In eastern Oregon, where resources are limited, it’s going to require significant investment on the part of the state.”
He said he hopes funding for mental health care is something state lawmakers will consider seriously in their next session.
“There’s got to be a right formula out there that hopefully legislators can figure out,” he said.