Over the last year, the Portland Police Bureau has been conducting an experiment.
Usually, two police officers ride in a police car. But in central precinct, one of those cars has one cop and one mental health clinician.
They are supposed to get to know the mentally ill individuals who generate the most calls downtown. They then point those individuals in the direction of health services, housing and food. And they'll be better able to defuse problems if somebody has a mental health crisis.
As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, police say the pilot program in Old Town has been a success and will continue.
Earlier this spring, Dan Mooty of Central City Concern heard that one of the street people he knew was threatening to kill someone.
Dan Mooty: "He was under a great deal of stress. He had a couple of knives on him. He was visibly pretty angry and experiencing some delusional thinking. And went into a coffee shop. And was pretty upset and loud in the coffee shop. He was talking about the pictures on the walls were communicating with him. That he was morphing into some creature that was capable of great destruction."
Mooty and a mental health worker talked to the man, then called the Portland Police Mobile Crisis Unit.
Dan Mooty: "We met them around the corner, gave them the background on the individual, what he was experiencing. What our relationship was like. How he had responded in the past to directives."
The man came out of the shop, talked to Mooty and the cops, then gave up his knives and was taken to hospital. But the outcome could have been very different.
Dan Mooty: "It absolutely could have went the other way."
The Portland Police Mobile Crisis Unit was formed last April after a number of headline-grabbing police shootings, that involved people with mental health issues.
Former Police Chief Rosie Sizer decided at that point to try working with troubled members of the community before they were in crisis.
Rose Sizer: "That strategy has been tried in other cities and we are interested to see if it is successful here."
It was a controversial idea. Some mental health advocates said it didn't go far enough. And the police union questioned its effectiveness.
So -- has it worked?
Austin Raglione: "We don't know if we've avoided a potentially dangerous situation where somebody could have been hurt by the police, or hurt somebody else."
Austin Raglione manages the Mobile Crisis Unit for the bureau
Austin Raglione: "But, what we do know is that the people that they are working with, we let other officers in central precinct know that we're working with these people. So if they encounter an individual in a situation that could be potentially escalating, they are aware of the situation and they know that we are working with them so they can get in touch with Chris and Cindy, and that does happen on a regular basis."
Chris and Cindy are basically the bureau's Mobile Crisis Unit.
Cindy Hacket is a social worker. She rides around in a cop car with Officer Chris Burley.
Chris Burley: "When we're out working together, we introduce one another as 'This is my partner.'"
Cindy Hacket: "We do most everything together. ha ha ha."
Hacket has years of experience working with people who suffer from mental illnesses. Burley brings the law enforcement perspective to the job.
Chris Burley: "Before I came to this position I was pretty clueless about the services that were available to persons with mental illness And a lot of what Cindy has done is help me network and make connections in the social service portion of the downtown area."
Cindy Hacket: "I've been really impressed with working with police and how they may not have the specific education for working in mental health or social services. But really the most important this is how you work with people and your respect and caring and those sorts of things."
The idea is to focus on the troubled individuals who generate the most calls.
Burley remembers one guy who was on probation. He travelled around with a shopping cart. Burley says the man was so scattered he kept losing the cart; forgetting his probation appointments; and getting arrested.
Burley and Hacket worked together to get the man’s situation sorted out.
Chris Burley: "Get his social security back up and running. Get him over to the location that was going to provide him with housing. What would have probably been nearly impossible for him to navigate, we were able to do that in the matter of about three hours. Just kind of staying with him and taking him from place to place. And today he's successfully doing what's required of him for probation. He's still in housing."
And Burley says, they no longer get calls about him. So they can move on and help someone else.
Burley say they've had dozens and dozens of similar cases, and calls the unit a success.
Jason Renaud with the Mental Health Association of Portland welcomes anything that bring police and people with mental illnesses together -- because, he says, there have been a lot of tragic encounters.
Jason Renaud: "I think we're going to take what we can get and hope we can get more in the future. But police officers are learning more and more that social work skills are as important as other sorts of training."
Mobile Crisis Unit manager, Austin Raglione, says the project should stay alive for a while.
Austin Raglione: "The police bureau is going to continue the pilot project through the end of this fiscal year and has asked for funding to continue it through next fiscal year."
Chris Burley will be leaving the unit soon. Raglione says it makes sense for him to take his expertise to other areas of the force -- and for another officer to immerse him or herself in helping Portland's mentally ill.
So what was the outcome for the man in the coffee shop, who suffered from delusional thinking?
Dan Mooty says that at the time of the incident, he got the medications he needed thanks to cooperation between mental health workers and the police.
Dan Mooty: "I think there's a greater awareness on both sides. Both the social service side -- the importance of working with the police and helping them get the information they need. And a greater awareness at the police department of the needs of people experiencing crisis."
And now, Central City Concern says that individual is in a Multnomah County transitional housing program.
Meanwhile, the half dozen law enforcement agencies that work in Multnomah County are inviting members of the public to hear their plan for managing use of deadly force incidents in Gresham next week.