When Gearhart Police Chief Jeff Bowman announced his department’s new policy in January for mental health calls, it didn’t come out of nowhere, at least for him. His Jan. 18 letter to the Gearhart mayor and City Council announcing his department will not be the first responders to certain kinds of mental health emergencies caught them by surprise, but Bowman had been thinking about the issue for years.
“I think that sometimes these individuals, even if they’re asking for help, they want someone else to talk to other than a law enforcement officer,” Bowman said. “And to be honest with you, law enforcement, we aren’t trained to be mental health counselors.”
Bowman doesn’t take it personally that people may not want him there. In fact, he agrees.
The directive, which went into effect Jan. 16, says that Gearhart police officers will continue to be the first responding agency to calls where a person is actively committing a serious crime and “when the public is in imminent harm’s way from this subject’s criminal behavior.” For calls that don’t pose an imminent threat to others, his officers won’t be the primary responders.
“Having a Mental Health condition is not a crime,” the directive states. “And these subjects should not be treated as such. We have a duty to protect all lives and sometimes, that task is best done by not doing anything.”
There is no centralized database tracking how many people with mental illness or disabilities are shot by police each year, but it is estimated that they make up between one third and one half of all police killings in the country. Despite repeated calls for change, tragedies keep piling up. Harnessing the momentum from last summer’s uprisings against police violence and racism, there are renewed pushes nationwide to find alternatives to situations that routinely prove vexing to police and deadly to the community.
Bowman’s new directive places his small department at the vanguard of policing in the state, and situates him as an outlier among departments typically hostile to sweeping systemic changes.
The last straw for Bowman was an incident 2,000 miles away in Killeen, Texas.
On Jan. 10, the family of Patrick Warren Sr., a Black man, asked for a mental health professional to check on him. The city of Killeen sent a police officer instead. A lawyer for the family said the officer’s demeanor was hostile. In a statement, police said officer Reynaldo Contreras “encountered an emotionally distressed man.” Contreras ultimately shot and killed Warren.
Bowman said Contreras never should have been there to begin with, and he’s decided he won’t put his own officers in a similar situation.
“It is time for the Social Services Community to step-up and start taking an active role,” Bowman’s letter to the mayor and city council states. “There has been legislation calling for change, court rulings calling for change and society calling for change. Why isn’t there a sweeping reform across the US within law enforcement agencies to end the practice of law enforcement officers being the first response to these types of calls?”
The new directive took Gearhart Mayor Paulina Cockrum by surprise. Bowman had previously shared information with Cockrum about Eugene’s CAHOOTS program, the decades old group that sends a medical professional and crisis worker to nonviolent mental health calls. Cockrum recalled having conversations about behavioral health emergencies over the past six months, but she said the policy change had never come up between her and Bowman.
“I just gave him feedback that I wanted a heads up basically, if he had other such ideas in the future,” Cockrum said. “It did take me that first week to wrap my arms around the issue a little bit more.”
Gearhart is a small town of about 1,500 people on Oregon’s north coast. About half the homes are primary residences; the other half are vacation homes. The Gearhart Police Department only has three officers and they responded to about a dozen mental health calls in 2020, according to Bowman. That means as progressive as the new policy may be, it’s more symbolic than a tectonic shift in the county.
Still, some changes are already happening.
“At our City Council meeting, one of the other councilors mentioned as many as three residents here who have counseling-type businesses who may be interested in volunteering to help cover that behavioral health gap,” Cockrum said.
After Bowman announced his directive, Cockrum spoke with the city administrator, who earmarked $8,000 to contribute to regional crisis response. The Gearhart City Council met in early February to discuss the budget, and is considering setting aside $10,000.
That’s a lot of money for Gearhart, but not enough to grow the county’s crisis response teams enough to meaningfully replace law enforcement.
“The biggest challenge that we have is that, based on the funding that we get from the state, we have one crisis worker on 24/7,” said Amy Baker, executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Health, the county-run community mental health program. “The problem is that when [Chief Bowman] says ‘social service agencies need to step up,’ I would gladly step up, but we need to be funded to the level that would allow us to be able to do that.”
The Clatsop County mobile crisis response team responds to about 40 calls a month. Baker said that often a situation may not require hospitalization but the team will still make multiple visits as they work through the underlying issues of a crisis, like getting someone into treatment or finding housing options.
About 30% of their calls are to assist law enforcement.
“Law enforcement gets prioritization because we really want to minimize their involvement if possible,” Baker said. “And we want to avoid having people go to the emergency department also, if possible. And so, often we co-respond with law enforcement to situations where somebody is having a behavioral health crisis.”
In Oregon, Eugene’s CAHOOTS program has been inundated with requests from other cities asking for help and advice. In Portland, where demonstrators have taken to the streets for months decrying racist and violent policing, the city is ramping up its own version, called Portland Street Response.
In an ideal world, if all Clatsop County law enforcement agencies were to adopt Bowman’s model and Clatsop Behavioral Health were to take the lead on as many mental health calls as is safe, Baker estimates they would need eight or nine more clinical staff members to work the mobile crisis teams.
That’s likely a budgetary bridge too far. Each mobile crisis team is staffed with a qualified mental health professional, someone with a masters degree in counseling, psychology or social work. Baker said one full time position on the team costs about $90,000 a year.
Over the past 50 years, the federal government and State of Oregon have steadily moved away from large mental health facilities, shifting their focus to private hospitals and community-based mental health services. As the state closed institutions like the Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville, the plan was to spend the money on community housing programs and private hospitals to treat people in crisis.
That didn’t happen, and public officials in communities like Gearhart have personal stories about a mental health system in crisis.
On top of being Gearhart’s mayor, Cockrum is a registered nurse. The second nursing job she ever had was on the night shift at a rural Oregon hospital. It was just her and one other nurse. Cockrum was 22. A young patient arrived in the middle of the night with mental health issues, and Cockrum remembers chasing her around the parking lot trying to get her to come in and be evaluated.
“It was her and it was me,” Cockrum recalled. “And there wasn’t anybody else involved at that moment. I think more than anything, like where was the team?”
Baker said she has watched time and again as she has been unable to help people experiencing profound mental health crises because those people had no idea they needed help.
“If you have people who have a condition that basically prevents them from having any understanding that they have this condition, relying on them to become voluntary makes no sense,” Baker said.
She’d like to see the state make it easier to compel people to get treatment.
Bowman, the police chief, said his officers had a challenging encounter as recently as November. Officers responded because a man was driving erratically in a U-Haul parking lot. After a brief, slow-speed pursuit and multiple attempts to get the driver out of his vehicle, a standoff ensued with the man holding a box cutter to his own throat.
Bowman said the crisis response team showed up and tried to help, but said they weren’t qualified to handle the situation.
There have also been incidents in the past year which highlighted the extent of the mental health system’s decline.
In April 2020, 34-year-old Iraq War veteran Alex Jimenez died in police custody after Warrenton police said they believed he was experiencing a mental breakdown and that he resisted arrest. Jimenez, who was Black and queer, was allegedly walking in the street and talking to himself when officers approached him. They ultimately tackled him to the ground and at one point used a taser to subdue him.
At the jail, body camera footage shows a handcuffed Jimenez yelling and spitting at deputies who pull him from a police SUV. As they attempted to restrain him, his body went limp.
The state medical examiner said the cause of death was methamphetamine toxicity with the shock from a Taser and fatty liver as contributing factors.
And in December, Alaina Burns, 31, walked into a stranger’s home in Sunset Beach and locked herself inside a second-story room. Multiple law enforcement agencies responded to what became a 90-minute standoff that ended when Burns walked out onto the roof carrying a gun. An Oregon State Police trooper shot and killed Burns after officers said she started advancing toward the officers.
Even if the state lowered the bar to force someone into treatment, there would still be dozens of hurdles to getting adequate care to the people who need it.
“If we could force it, we wouldn’t have a place to send them anyways,” said Drew Grabham, a clinical social worker with 10 years experience doing street outreach with Portland Street Medicine. “The system is overrun. It can’t even deal with the voluntary patients.”
Grabham said capacity isn’t the only issue he sees. Hospitals, he said, patch people up and send them back out into the community.
“The hospital may solve the acute crisis but there’s still the chronic crisis that exists that’s not being well addressed,” he said. “And we don’t have a system that really deals with that.”
One result of the deinstitutionalization that has happened over the past 50 years is that as funding became more fragmented, so did services.
“So if you’re in a mental health crisis, you go here and you get this service,” Grabham said. “But if you’re in a medical crisis with a little psychiatric, you go here. And if you’re struggling using substances and maybe a mental health crisis and a wound where do you go? There isn’t one stop. It’s not coordinated.”
As a result of this fragmented system, he said, it is difficult for people to get the help or care they need before a problem becomes a crisis. The system is set up to classify people as either being in crisis or not. And if they’re not, they’re on their own.
“I don’t think that it’s right that the state basically has got out of mental health care and turned it all over to 36 counties,” Bowman said. “Somewhere down the line it just got settled on law enforcement’s back that this is what we’re supposed to do, and we don’t have the training for it.”
For Bowman, if that means dipping into police budgets to fund alternatives, so be it.
“Take my money,” he said, praising a Minneapolis plan to cut $8 million from city’s police budget and reallocate the money to fund police alternatives like mental health crisis response.
“Because this issue extends far beyond our city limits,” he said. “It’s throughout the whole country. It’s just whether or not people want to change, if law enforcement wants to change. If the local politicians want it to change and not wait for something bad to happen, and then have them go, ‘oh, my God, how’d we get here?’”
Bowman said he can tell lawmakers all of the ways they got there.