Corvallis doubles the role of police in mental health crises, while cities elsewhere do the opposite

A Corvallis police officer and a behavioral health specialist responded in January to a call at the Corvallis Day Shelter, an organization that provides resources to people experiencing homelessness. The two respondents were part of a new team dedicated to addressing mental health crises in the city. But it didn’t go well.

A person had locked himself in the bathroom and was not responding to the drop-in center staff. Unable to see the person and unsure if they were safe, the staff called for help.

Staff at the return center say an armed police officer arrived with a behavioral health specialist carrying a taser.

Eventually, the center staff asked the police team to leave. According to staff at the accommodation center, the person would have been charged with trespassing if the police had forced him out of the bathroom, possibly preventing him from returning.

“We just said we don’t want to intrude on this person,” said Maddie Bean, the reentry center’s street outreach coordinator. “We’d rather handle it ourselves.”

Maddie Bean, Outreach Coordinator at the Corvallis Housing Center, gives a tour of the building. Bean believes that law enforcement should not play a central role in responding to the mental health crisis. Courtney Wilson/Graduate Institute of Journalism

In response to law enforcement killing a disproportionate number of people with mental illness each year, cities across the country have launched programs to replace police with mental health experts on crisis calls whenever possible. At the same time, Corvallis did the opposite, pairing a mental health expert with police, strengthening the role of law enforcement in crisis response.

Last year, the Corvallis Police Department and Benton County Behavioral Health launched a pilot project called Crisis Outreach Response and Engage, or CORE. The program only works during business hours.

Officials say it has had some success. The team has resolved more than half of the 268 mental health calls they responded to on the scene in the program’s first six months, Police Chief Nick Hurley told the Corvallis City Council in February. Only 1% ended in arrest.

But some who work with vulnerable communities have a different experience.

To help the person locked in the bathroom at the return center, staff took the door off its hinges. They were able to talk to the man and connect him to long-term mental health care. The police response didn’t help, staff said.

“It wasn’t effective,” Bean said. “We were the ones who ended up de-escalating and handling the situation, not this team.”

In Bean’s experience, the most vulnerable people in the community fear the police and don’t trust them to respond to crises. One reason, she said, is the appearance of the officers.

“There’s an underlying message that you don’t trust the community you’re going to if you feel the need to wear that vest and have a gun,” she said.

Police also rely heavily on the criminal justice system to address problems when service delivery could be more efficient, Bean said. And their involvement can have dire consequences.

More than 20 percent of people killed by police have mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers in the US. In Corvallis, mental health calls have increased 59 percent since 2018, Hurley told the City Council.

In adopting CORE and updating the city’s approach, Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber said the city looked at options other than the police, but chose a hybrid model to make it easier to keep responders safe and triage mental health calls.

Traber countered the idea that Corvallis was behind police reform advances in other cities, pointing out that their department was not militarized and embraced community policing at a time when other agencies were doing the opposite.

“We’ve been developing our police response for years,” Traber said. “I think we’re ahead of the country.”

Traber, who was informed in February about the CORE program, said he thinks it’s going well.

In June, the Corvallis Police Department announced it was one of three agencies nationally selected to pilot a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice called Crisis Response and Intervention Training. The 40-hour training is designed to better prepare officers to help people experiencing behavioral health crises. The federal government hopes to use the process to develop a curriculum available to every law enforcement agency in the country.

“I think it’s important for citizens to get help from someone who can help them, and it’s relevant to the situation they’re in,” said Cornelia Siegworth, associate deputy director of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. the agency developing training.

Without a 24-hour crisis response team, Bean acknowledged that the burden will continue to fall on the police.

Traber said a 24-hour response team could come. This fall, the CORE team plans to add another mental health expert and expand its hours. And while he hopes the pilot program becomes permanent, he said an entirely non-police response is also possible.

Bean is skeptical that training can make police respond properly.

“It’s going to take a long time and it’s going to require a lot of changes in the way they react to things for the interaction to be positive,” Bean said. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

— Courtney Wilson, Salem-Keizer Early College High School

— Ming Kim, Cleveland High School

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration between The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program go to oregonlive.com/hsji.

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