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Police tried to avoid confrontation

Police are frequently criticized for being to quick to use deadly force, especially when confronting mentally ill subjects. Sometimes this criticism is warranted. In the case of the fatal shooting on Argyle Court on Tuesday, it is not. Medford police tried to resolve the standoff peacefully for 19 hours, opening fire only when fired upon.

Tuesday's tragic outcome says more about the need for better mental health intervention and treatment, and perhaps a change in the law, than it does about police procedures.

As it happens, Mail Tribune reporter Thomas Moriarty was already working on an in-depth Sunday story about special training Medford police officers undergo to learn how to interact with mentally ill people in crisis situations when the situation developed on Argyle Court. Officers on the scene used that training during the 19-hour standoff.

Medford Police Chief Tim George says his department works closely with local mental health workers, one of the elements of the "Memphis Model" developed by police in that city to more effectively respond to situations involving mental illness. You can read our story about the training local officers undergo in today's paper.

This training is especially important given the number of cases police face involving mental health crisis. For example, just in the first two months of this year, Medford officers responded to more than 100 situations involving an attempted suicide or a person threatening suicide.

George has high praise for county mental health workers, but he points out that the resources available to address the problem of mental illness are woefully inadequate. The Behavioral Analysis Unit known as Two North at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center has only 18 beds, which may be full when an officer arrives with a person who needs to be placed there. That unit also accepts only adults. There is no corresponding facility for teen-agers experiencing a mental health crisis.

In addition, persons who are intoxicated cannot be admitted to the hospital until they are sober. Fortunately, there is a local sobering unit; not all counties have one. But it, too, may be full on a busy night.

All these services cost money. Providing more acute treatment beds for adults or opening a secure ward for adolescents would mean taking funding from some other worthy expense such as schools or jails or road construction.

One more dilemma faces police who are trying to help those experiencing a mental health crisis: The law does not allow them to take someone into custody who has not committed a crime and does not pose a danger to themselves or others.

On Sunday, when officers responded to Andrew Charles Shipley's residence. he had locked himself inside, alone. Police could not contact him, and he had made no direct threats, so they could not arrest him.

Civil commitment laws say individuals may not be detained against their will unless they clearly pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. Those laws were a reaction to a time when it was possible to have someone locked up simply by calling them "crazy."

No one wants to violate anyone's civil rights, but some experts argue the pendulum has swung too far, and authorities need more leeway to detain people in crisis. That would mean changing the law, a long and controversial process because the vast majority of mentally ill people are not dangerous and should not be held against their will.

Those who are dangerous need all the compassion and help society can provide before they hurt themselves or someone else. The Medford Police Department's thorough training and careful approach shows police understand that.

Unfortunately, even the best crisis intervention techniques cannot stop bullets after they have been fired.