First responders by default

Mental health issues should be addressed before crises occur, but funding is lacking

A mentally disturbed man who allegedly shot at three teenagers on the Bear Creek Greenway last month was arrested without incident, although he was holding a gun when officers confronted him. That's the kind of resolution everyone wants to see when police encounter mentally ill people, and an intensive training course local police attended recently in Utah is designed to teach officers how to deal with individuals in crisis.

One training exercise involved officers wearing headphones that played voices intended to mimic the hallucinations experienced by people with paranoid schizophrenia. In other training segments, officers learned about the wide range of disorders and conditions affecting people they may encounter and how to deal with them.

Over the next three years, the new division manager of Jackson County Mental Health wants every police officer in the county to receive training in crisis response to the mentally ill. That will go a long way toward increasing the likelihood that those responses will end peacefully, protecting the lives and safety of the mentally ill and law enforcement alike.

The combination of budget cuts to mental health treatment programs and increasing drug and alcohol abuse has forced police more often into the role of first responders in mental health crisis situations.

The Medford Police Department, which is committed to training all of its officers, has seen mental health calls increase 25 percent to 50 percent in recent years. Medford officers responded to 664 mental health calls in 2012, and in 397 of those cases, officers had to place someone in temporary, protective custody.

Police come under intense criticism when they injure or kill a mentally ill individual while trying to defuse a volatile situation. They should be commended for taking on this responsibility and for learning how to relate to the mentally ill and avoid violent confrontations.

Ultimately, as Medford Lt. Curtis Whipple points out, mental health crisis situations shouldn't be a law enforcement issue. People with mental illness should be helped by mental health professionals, ideally before they reach the crisis stage.

Efforts have begun in Salem to restore mental health funding, but it will not be an easy task. Senate President Peter Courtney last month said he wanted to spend $333 million over two years to restore community mental health funding and reach thousands of mentally ill Oregonians who aren't being served. Courtney wants to find dedicated funding, which means new taxes of some kind, but he hasn't proposed a specific source or sources.

Lawmakers in both parties say they want to explore the idea, but reaching agreement on revenue won't be easy.

Unless and until the Legislature manages to do that, local police will continue to be the first response to mentally ill people in crisis. It is heartening to see them take on that duty in the most responsible way possible.

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