Mental health community wants officers to make a connection, avoid confrontation in tense situations

As far as Sam Cochran is concerned, a special Portland Police Bureau squad won’t be enough.

Cochran, who coordinated the country’s first Crisis Intervention Team in Memphis, is considered among the top national authorities on police dealing with citizens with mental illness. When Portland decided to create a CIT program in 1995, Cochran served as a consultant.

When Police Chief Mike Reese announced last week that the bureau would create a squad of CIT officers to respond to calls involving people with mental illness, he was leaning on the model developed in Memphis and initially installed in Portland in the mid-’90s. Reese’s announcement came in response to a federal Justice Department report in September that criticized Portland police’s use of force against people with mental illness, and threatened a federal lawsuit unless the city and the bureau made changes.

But simply selecting a number of police officers to serve as a special tactical unit to deal with the mentally ill must only be the start of fundamental change in Portland, Cochran says. Just as important is the way those officers are trained and who trains them. And in that respect, the Memphis model is far different from the way CIT training is handled in Portland.

“If you haven’t done anything other than point some people to training and you haven’t added buy-in as a community, you’re putting on Band-Aids,” Cochran says. “The mental health community has to have an ownership of CIT.”

That only happens, Cochran says, when the mental health community — therapists, hospitals, program administrators, patients and more — have contributed to training of CIT officers and maintain a regular relationship with them.

It hasn’t occurred in Portland for years, though key people involved with the training of Portland officers say the model Portland favors works better for officers here than the style of training used in Memphis.

Cochran’s message is that training officers who will confront the mentally ill on the street is about more than what the officers learn. In a vacuum, he says, even the best trained officers are working at a disadvantage.

Evolving training

CIT, as developed in Memphis, also creates trust between police and the mental health community so that all become part of an ongoing support system for the CIT officers. In Memphis, university psychology and criminal justice departments help evaluate CIT training. CIT officers are not simply trained in classrooms set up by police, but they visit community mental health programs.

“You’re looking for a community coming together on this and really making the decision, not just within the police department, about how can we make CIT a better community program,” Cochran says.

That sort of investment from the mental health community might have existed 15 years ago, but hasn’t been part of CIT for many years, according to people in mental health organizations.

Chris Bouneff, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Oregon, says he’s convinced that Reese means well with the formation of a CIT squad, but Bouneff is waiting to see if funds will be committed by City Council to make the change meaningful.

“A question in our minds is, is this a step or a solution?” Bouneff says. “If it’s considered a solution it’s not going to work.”

Bouneff, like Cochran, says the CIT squad has to build connections with the mental health community, whether by visiting mental health service providers throughout the city, or having NAMI volunteers help train CIT officers, as they once did. When the city appropriated enough money for community policing, Bouneff says, officers had the freedom to build those connections on a regular basis.

But Central Precinct Capt. Sara Westbrook, who became CIT coordinator for the Portland police in 1996 and served two three-year terms in that capacity, says the training program for Portland officers evolved to better fit the way CIT has evolved here.

After homeless psychiatric patient James Chasse Jr. died in police custody in September 2006, then-mayor Tom Potter decided that all Portland officers would receive CIT training. The demands of training hundreds of officers rather than a select few, as in Memphis, required a different model, according to Westbrook.

In addition, the select few in Memphis and in the initial Portland CIT version included only officers who had volunteered to be part of CIT. Potter’s decision to train all officers meant some who had no interest in working with the mentally ill were also in the classroom.

Westbrook says she saw a significant number of officers becoming bored and getting defensive at the presentations made by members of the mental health community.

“Who wants to sit for a week in class and have people tell you why you’re terrible?” she says.

In addition, arranging for community volunteers to be available for what became a huge increase in the number of classroom training sessions became a logistical nightmare, according to Westbrook.

The alternative that evolved in Portland, Westbrook says, replaced psychiatric patients and therapists coming in to talk with police officers with videotaped interviews of police officers who themselves had family members with mental illness. In addition, some taped interviews of community members were added to the mix.

One community mental health patient, Gary Sjolander, has continued to address the police since CIT training began in Portland.

Having the tapes of fellow Portland police officers talking about their own family situations has proven powerful, according to Westbrook.

“I think what we did enabled our police officers to hear the message at a much deeper level,” she says.

Lost support

Doris Cameron-Minard, a member of the CIT citizens advisory committee since 1995 and former NAMI president, says something was lost when the police moved to CIT training without mental health patients and therapists in the room. Those patients and therapists, Cameron-Minard says, benefited as well.

“To hear them talk to police, how they were treated, how it felt, it was a learning experience on both sides of the fence,” says Cameron-Minard. “They could see officers drinking coffee, talking to them, not being in this authoritarian mode.”

Cameron-Minard says that the community backing of CIT emphasized by Cochran dissolved over time. The annual NAMI banquet, at which police officers received awards for CIT work, became less and less well attended by police.

“I think they were embarrassed to receive an award,” she says.

But Cameron-Minard doesn’t place all the blame for the lost community support with police. She says gradually advocates in the mental health community began losing their interest in attending the citizens advisory committee meetings. In recent years, some meetings had no representatives from mental health providers, seniors or veterans.

“They got tired,” she says.

Now, with a new CIT model soon to be implemented in the police bureau, the mental health community needs to step up and become part of the program, Cameron-Minard says, insisting on input into how many officers become part of the special CIT squad, by what criteria they are selected, and how they are trained.

“I’m hopeful,” Cameron-Minard says of the new CIT squad. “But the proof is in the pudding. I’ll wait and see. And I love the word oversight.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Gary Sjolander uses his paranoid schizophrenia to help local police officers understand the needs of people with mental illnesses.

Life with schizophrenia provides training tools to police

Gary Sjolander has no idea why the federal Justice Department report on Portland police use of force against people with mental illness says no community members are used in the training of police.

He says Justice Department officials never spoke with him. He’s been speaking to Portland police for close to 20 years about living with schizophrenia.

Sjolander has been the one community member who each year addresses Portland police as part of their crisis intervention training. He serves as a recovery specialist at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, where he once lived as a patient.

At 21, Sjolander, now 59, began hearing voices and would not come out of his room in his parent’s Salem house. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

To this day, he says he hears 17 different voices in his head. Learning to deal with that is a large part of what he tells police officers in CIT training.

In one drill which Sjolander says he has used with officers from other departments but not with Portland police, he has an officer step forward and places cones on both sides of his head. He then has two officers speak into those cones while a fourth officer approaches the subject and gives him the sort of instructions he would to someone on the street. The subject officer gets an idea what it’s like to try to comply with police when two other voices are competing for attention in his head.

Sjolander talks to officers about his life experience: spending four months in the psychiatric hospital and being told upon discharge that he would never recover.

“They thought I’d never learn to live with it,” Sjolander says. “They thought I was a basket case, basically.”

Sjolander has learned to live with his disease. Outside of being picked up once at 18 for being drunk, he says he has never had trouble with the law. He meditates and uses aromatherapy to quiet the voices in his head.

He has been married for 21 years.

But those voices and his disease are always a part of him, Sjolander says, and that is what he tries to teach police. He tells them about having two Salem police officers detain him at a Salem movie theater after a call had been made about someone selling bogus tickets. The officers escorted him outside the theater and became suspicious because Sjolander began sweating heavily and shaking, his mouth became dry and he started slurring his speech — all symptoms of his disease and the medication he was taking.

“I was completely innocent, and I knew it all the time,” Sjolander says. “I came across as looking guilty.”

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