Crisis training for all police is not a flaw

My View • Front-line officers need another tool to protect mentally ill people
by: L.E. BASKOW Portland Police officer Todd Engstrom (center) demonstrates to trainees the proper technique for extracting a questionable driver from a vehicle. All Portland officers also receive Crisis Intervention Training, and a My View writer says that’s the right thing to do.

After talking with reporter Peter Korn for more than an hour, it was very disappointing to see his article on Portland's training for police on mental health issues was still titled 'Experts say police training flawed' (Jan. 13).

Talking with Korn, I related the long history of Crisis Intervention Team training in Portland. The parents of Nathan Thomas, a 12-year-old who was taken hostage in his own home and was shot by police who also killed his abductor, asked Portland to come up with a way to handle situations with people in mental health crisis instead of using deadly force. In exchange, they did not sue the city.

Portland adopted the 'Memphis model,' training only a small percentage of patrol officers who volunteered to respond to CIT calls.

For years, Portland Copwatch and other members of the community pushed the city to train all officers with these skills to recognize possible signs of mental illness and to de-escalate confrontations using body language, words and tone of voice, not weapons. But city officials said they did not have the money to pay for this training.

Richard 'Dickie' Dow, a man who was in treatment for schizophrenia, was beaten to death by Portland police in 1998. A settlement with the family cost taxpayers $400,000.

Jose Mejia Poot, a Mexican day laborer taken in when his epileptic seizure was mistaken for mental illness, was shot by Portland police in a mental health hospital in 2001. The first set of officers called to the hospital included members of the CIT. Those officers went off duty, and when a second call came in, untrained officers shot and killed Mejia.

This cost the city more money, and a pledge to give officers a few hours of training about epilepsy and mental illness.

It wasn't until after Portland police beat James Chasse Jr. to death in September 2006, when Mayor Tom Potter was able to come up with roughly $500,000 to pay for training all officers in crisis intervention, that the community's demands were finally met.

Now the Tribune is asking the community to return to the days when officers facing a crisis had to wait for backup from a special team to recognize and de-escalate such situations. Each of the seven people shot by police bullets in the past 13 months were in some sort of mental health crisis. According to the police, only two incidents lasted long enough where a specialized CIT officer could have come to the scene. Those were the shootings of Aaron Campbell and Craig Boehler.

The officer who shot Jack Collins did so moments after Collins emerged from a Portland Arboretum bathroom holding a one-inch X-Acto knife. The officers who shot Darryel Ferguson did so as soon as he came to his apartment door with a replica gun. The officers who shot Thomas Higginbotham did so moments after he allegedly emerged from a room with a knife.

The officers who shot Marcus Lagozzino did so after making an elaborate plan to take him into custody, which apparently did not take into consideration the likelihood he would charge them with the machete he was holding.

And, needless to say, the Gang Enforcement Team officers who shot Keaton Otis 23 times did so without regard to whether he was in mental health crisis, as they'd targeted him for 'looking like a gang member.' After three officers hit him simultaneously with tasers and an officer was shot (allegedly by a gun that Otis pulled out), the police unloaded 32 bullets in his direction.

In the case of Aaron Campbell, who was unarmed, he was actually in a text and phone conversation with an officer practicing good conversational skills, but then a failure in communication between the negotiators and a police sniper led to Campbell's death.

Clearly one issue the Portland Police Bureau needs to deal with is integrating Crisis Intervention Team training with similar training on the use of deadly force.

We support the comment in the story from Jason Renaud at the Mental Health Association of Portland, who said the problem is not that Portland trains all its officers, but that all the officers are not taking the training to heart. It may be worthwhile to identify and put on call those officers who excel at CIT skills, who might be able to de-escalate situations if they are brought in. To remove the ability of front-line officers to assess the situation and tap into those skills would be a giant step backward.

Dan Handelman is a co-founding member of Portland Copwatch, a civilian group promoting police accountability through citizen action.