System's weak spot: 'It's not enough to just be acting strange'

Glenn Russell Behnke had several contacts with police, mental health counselors and doctors in the days before he drowned in the Mount Tabor Park upper reservoir.

An incident with a child 2 1/2 days before his death even caused a lockdown at a Southeast Portland elementary school.

Although everyone who saw Behnke says he was behaving strangely, he was not held for any length of time during these encounters.

Behnke's brother, Bryce Behnke, said this week that something should have been done to stop his sibling from climbing into the reservoir and drowning in the early hours of Jan. 16 while four police officers and a security officer stood nearby.

'He had the mental capacity of an 8- or 9-year-old; anyone could see that,' Bryce Behnke said.

Police could not keep Behnke, 45, off the streets, said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a Portland police spokesman.

'If he wasn't breaking the law or presenting an immediate danger to himself or others, we can't hold him,' Schmautz said. 'It's not enough to just be acting strange.'

Although Behnke's behavior and death Ñ officially declared a suicide by the Multnomah County medical examiner Ñ have received a lot of media coverage, the circumstances leading up to it are not unusual, Schmautz said.

'We are faced with a system that is not doing enough for people with mental health issues,' he said. 'Very few people stay in for any length of time, even if they need help.'

Police records document Behnke's rough life on the streets. He had been arrested at least 13 times on a variety of charges, including assault and theft, during the last decade. Although his earliest arrests were motor vehicle offenses, more recent charges included drug possession and drinking in public.

In the weeks before he died, Behnke apparently was living in a broken-down Ford van with several other transients behind Richmond Elementary School, 2276 S.E. 41st Ave.

On Jan. 13, Behnke walked into the school playground and approached a kindergarten student shortly before noon, setting off a school lockdown.

'The kindergarten teacher saw him approach the student, so she got them all inside,' said Principal Becki McWaters. 'He left the playground but was standing at the corner raving and kicking things. I was concerned so we locked down the building, and I called 911.'

McWaters said four police cars quickly responded. After the officers talked to Behnke, they walked him over to the nearby Cascadia Behavioral Health Care facility at 2415 S.E. 43rd Ave.

'He was in there for about 40 minutes, then he left and walked away,' McWaters said.

Cascadia officials declined to comment on Behnke's stay at the clinic.

'State law prohibits us from revealing the names of our clients or talking about the treatment they receive,' said Mark Schorr, the organization's communications director.

Speaking in general terms, Schorr said Behnke could have been examined and released if he was not suicidal, threatening anyone or so incoherent that he appeared unable to care for himself.

A scary encounter

Kristin Quevedo, the mother of one of Richmond's first-grade students, was having lunch with her son at the school when McWaters and others hustled the children inside and locked the doors.

After the incident, school employees told Quevedo that the person who had caused the lockdown was living with other transients in a nearby van. Curious about the person's motives, she and another parent located the van on Southeast Caruthers Street near the 42nd Avenue intersection.

'It was terrible. The whole area smelled of urine,' said Quevedo, who was standing near the van with the other parent when Behnke suddenly approached her.

'I couldn't believe he was out so quickly,' she said. Quevedo was so shaken by the incident that she kept her son out of school for the rest of the week.

According to Quevedo, Behnke was waving a set of car keys and asked the two women if they were from a tow truck company. She described him as pushy and nearly incomprehensible.

'He was aggressive, talking very loudly, but hard to understand,' Quevedo said.

'When he came up to us, he invaded my space and I took one giant step back. I was talking to my husband on my cell phone, and I said very loudly, 'A strange man has just walked up to me,' and he left. I think I scared him away.'

McWaters said the van was towed the next day.

More trouble

The school incident was not the only time Behnke was in contact with authorities in the days leading up to his death. He also visited the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center on Marquam Hill on the morning of Jan. 14, according to Pat Forsyth, a hospital spokeswoman.

Forsyth said Behnke came to the hospital at 6:53 a.m. and complained of cold symptoms.

'He came into the emergency room for an unscheduled appointment. We gave him nonalcoholic cough medicine and lozenges, and he left,' Forsyth said.

Portland police encountered Behnke again the next morning. According to Schmautz, an officer contacted him while responding to a 4:42 a.m. call that a transient was vandalizing a building at Southeast 39th Avenue and Belmont Street.

'There was a conversation with him, but there was no apparent damage to the building so he was released,' Schmautz said.

Behnke showed up at the veterans hospital a few hours later. According to Forsyth, an employee called the hospital police to say Behnke was in the atrium tearing posters off the wall.

'An officer responded and asked Behnke if he wanted to see a doctor,' Forsyth said. 'He said no, so the officer asked him to leave. When he didn't leave, he was cited for trespass.'

After being cited, Behnke let the officer drive him downtown, Forsyth said.

'He asked to go to Southwest Sixth Avenue near PSU, so that's where he was dropped off. That's the last we saw of him,' Forsyth said.

Although Forsyth said Behnke was acting strangely, the hospital could not hold him because he did not appear to be an immediate threat to himself or others, she said.

'There are definite restrictions about when you can hold someone against their will,' she said.

The next time police encountered Behnke was at approximately 1:30 a.m. Jan. 16 at the upper reservoir of Mount Tabor Park. He died about 15 minutes later after scaling an 8-foot fence and jumping into the reservoir. Most of the incident was documented by a city surveillance camera.

A cautionary tale

Behnke's death has received a lot of media attention, in part because of the controversy over the city's plan to spend $78 million to rebuild the city's five open reservoirs.

The city wants to replace the three Mount Tabor reservoirs with buried water tanks and place plastic covers over the two reservoirs at Washington Park. Neighborhood activists oppose the plan, arguing that it is an overreaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

At first glance, Behnke's death seemed to show that the reservoirs are vulnerable to attack. But a review of the surveillance footage indicates that the incident that led to Behnke's death could have been avoided if police had simply escorted him out of the park.

Schmautz said officers had no reason to physically walk Behnke out of the park because the transient appeared to be leaving voluntarily. His decision to climb the fence and jump into the water could not have been predicted, Schmautz said.

'We have encounters with transients every day,' he said. 'When we find them where they're not supposed to be, we give them the chance to leave. If they do, that's the end of it.'

Water bureau representative Ross Walker confirmed that transients are not a serious problem at the reservoirs.

'We tell people to move along several times a week,' Walker said. 'Maybe once a week, we have to say if you don't move, we'll call the police.'

The council may have decided that the reservoirs are potential terrorist targets, but it has not given police special instructions to move unauthorized people away from them.

In fact, the city ordinance governing park closures appears to prevent the police from ordering anyone out of Mount Tabor Park. Although city parks are closed to the public after 10 p.m., the ordinance specifically exempts the scenic view areas of Mount Tabor Park from closure.

'The exemption appears to prevent the police from arresting anyone for trespass at Mount Tabor,' said Deputy Multnomah County District Attorney Wayne Pearson. 'All anyone would have to say is, 'I'm here for the view.' '

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