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Police on front lines with mentally ill

Medford city councilors expressed dismay Thursday at the spike in suicides and mental health problems that police say they deal with all too often..

“I feel like I’ve been living in a hole,” Councilor Chris Corcoran said after hearing the report.

Corcoran and other councilors listened to Medford police describe the complex situations they deal with on a daily basis, such as domestic disturbance calls that can rapidly turn into a suicide attempt or standoff, particularly when guns are involved.

Medford police have been involved in three fatal officer-involved shootings with armed men with apparent mental issues over the past year. On Thursday, officers appeared before the council to answer questions and provide information about their crisis-intervention efforts.

Officers throughout the county have been responding to a spike in mental health calls, with 50 to 55 suicides a year in Jackson County, according to Medford police Lt. Curtis Whipple. When you add in attempted suicides, the number is 10 times that.

“I was staggered by the fact there was one a week in Jackson County,” Corcoran said.

Councilors listened through headsets to a recording that simulated the kinds of voices mentally ill residents hear. At the same time, they were asked to simultaneously follow what another officer said to show the kind of confusion encountered by someone afflicted with schizophrenia.

That's similar to police training in which officers are bombarded with voices while they try to focus on their surroundings and respond to questions.

Medford police Cpl. Josh Schilders told councilors he’s witnessed three suicides. That has led him to seek counseling at times.

“To say that you go to these things and it doesn’t affect you, or it affects you down the road, is not accurate,” Schilders said.

An officer for 10 years, Schilders said, “From when I first started to now, the mental health calls are astronomical.”

Police say mental illness is often made worse by drug use, particularly methamphetamine, which can have effects similar to schizophrenia.

In Jackson County, 123 officers from various agencies have gone through crisis intervention training instructing them how best to deal with the mentally ill.

“It does give us more empathy,” said Whipple.

He said 80 Medford officers have been trained, and the goal is to train all officers by the end of the year.

In 2014, Medford officers detained 486 people they believed had mental health problems, compared with 481 in 2013. Suicides or suicide attempts increased from 479 in 2013 to 555 in 2014.

For the first three months of 2015, mental health holds hit 201, a 17 percent increase over last year at the same time.

Councilor Dick Gordon said he wondered why Oregon’s suicide rate is 41 percent above the national average.

Whipple said a number of factors play into the suicide rate, including access to firearms, longer and wetter winters and an older population.

Many suicides police have encountered involve males older than 50, he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.

A heavily armed Medford policeman ran for position March 17 during a brief fire fight in which a mentally ill man was killed after firing on police. Mail Tribune/ Bob Pennell