Corvallis is increasing the police’s role in mental health crises, while cities elsewhere are doing the opposite

A Corvallis police officer and behavioral health officer responded to a call in January to the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center, an organization that provides resources to people living with homelessness. The two aides were part of a new team dedicated to tackling mental health crises in the city. But things didn’t go well.

One person had locked themselves in the bathroom and was unresponsive to drop-in center staff. Unable to see the person and not sure if he was safe, staff called for help.

Drop-in center staff say an armed police officer arrived with a behavioral doctor with a taser.

The center staff eventually told the police team to leave. According to shelter staff, if police had forced the person out of the bathroom and possibly prevented them from returning, the person would have been charged with trespassing.

“We just said, well, we don’t want to walk on that person,” said Maddie Bean, the drop-in’s street coordinator. “We’d rather settle this on our own.”

Maddie Bean, street coordinator at the Corvallis Drop-In Center, guides through the building. Bean believes law enforcement shouldn’t play a central role in responding to mental health crises. Courtnie Wilson/High School Journalism Institute

In response to law enforcement killing a disproportionate number of people with mental illness each year, cities across the country have launched programs to replace police with mental health professionals whenever possible during crisis response. At the same time, Corvallis has done the opposite, pairing a mental health expert with the police force and enshrining law enforcement’s role in crisis response.

Last year, the Corvallis Police Department and Benton County Behavioral Health launched a pilot project called Crisis Outreach Response and Engage, or CORE. The program only runs during business hours.

Officials say it has had some success. The team resolved more than half of the 268 mental health calls it responded to on-site in the first six months of the program, Police Chief Nick Hurley told Corvallis City Council in February. Only 1% ended up in arrest.

However, some working with vulnerable communities have had different experiences.

To help the person trapped in the contact point’s bathroom, the staff took the door off its hinges. They were able to speak to the person and connect them to long-term psychiatric care. The police response was not helping, staff said.

“It wasn’t effective,” Bean said. “We were the ones who ended up de-escalating and dealing with the situation, not this team.”

In Bean’s experience, the most vulnerable people in the community fear the police and don’t trust them to respond to crises. One reason, she said, is the appearance of the officers.

“It has an underlying message that if you feel the need to wear that vest and have a gun, you don’t trust the community you go to,” she said.

Police also rely heavily on the criminal justice system to address issues when service delivery could be more effective, Bean said. And their involvement can have dire consequences.

According to a Washington Post database of fatal US shootings by on-duty officers, more than 20% of those killed by police have mental illnesses. In Corvallis, mental health calls are up 59% since 2018, Hurley told the city council.

In acquiring CORE and updating the city’s approach, Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber said the city was looking at options outside of the police force, but opted for a hybrid model to improve the safety of responders and the selection of calls in the police force to facilitate the mental health sector.

Traber balked at the idea that Corvallis was behind advances in police reform in other cities, pointing out that her department was not militarized and dedicated itself to community policing at a time when other agencies were doing the opposite.

“We’ve been developing our police response for years,” Traber said. “I think we’re ahead of the country.”

Traber, who was briefed on the CORE program in February, said he thinks things are going well.

In June, the Corvallis Police Department announced that it was one of three nationwide departments selected to pilot a Department of Justice-sponsored program called Crisis Response and Intervention Training. The 40-hour training is designed to better prepare officers to help people with behavioral health crises. The federal government hopes to use the process to develop a curriculum that will be available to all law enforcement agencies in the country.

“I think it’s important that citizens get help from someone who can help them, and that depends on the situation they’re in,” said Cornelia Sigworth, deputy assistant director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance Ministry of Justice, the agency that develops the training.

Without a 24/7 crisis response team, Bean acknowledged that the burden will remain on the police force.

Traber said a response team could come 24 hours a day. This fall, the CORE team plans to add another mental health professional and expand their hours. And while he hopes the pilot program becomes permanent, he said a completely non-police response is also possible.

Bean is skeptical that the police will ever make the appropriate response.

“It would take a long time and a lot of changes in the way they react to things for it to be a positive interaction,” Bean said. “I don’t see that anytime soon.”

– Courtnie Wilson, Salem-Keizer Early College High School

– Ming Kim, Cleveland High School

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration between The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or support of the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.

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