EVERY TIME a Portland cop shoots someone with a mental illness, or in crisis, the refrain from the police bureau has been the same.
Basically it's some variation of this: Governments are cutting back. Social services agencies are strapped. There are more and more mentally ill and addicted people on the streets. And we're trying to be first responders, but we're also still cops.
Last Thursday, September 29, the storyline shifted. Officials called the media to talk about another standoff with an armed man who was mentally ill. But this time, they were ebullient.
The man wasn't injured. No shots were fired. And police seem to have finally learned something about how best to deal with the mentally ill: restraint.
In what even bureau brass say is a dramatic shift, officers decided not to leap into a confrontation with the man, identified as John Griffin—acknowledging explicitly that sometimes a cop's very presence in a situation can send it spiraling out of control.
In fact, in two previous incidents with Griffin, both of which also involved guns, officers "walked away" because it wasn't clear Griffin had committed a crime, and also because Griffin had calmed down. Instead, officers worked with mental health professionals, Veterans Affairs, relatives, and the district attorney's office to obtain a civil commitment hold for Griffin. That plan went awry after Griffin finally did commit a crime, police say: pointing a gun outside his window and actually threatening to shoot someone on Wednesday night. Even then, they quietly evacuated neighbors and avoided banging on his door.
"This is a big change," said Central Precinct Commander Bob Day, formerly the bureau's top training officer. "[Mentally ill people] may not be receptive [to officers' offers of help]. At what point do we force help, and what might be the consequences?"
Too often, the consequences have been fatal. The federal government is investigating the bureau for its record of force against the mentally ill, especially for an awful run of shootings starting in January 2010 through the early months of 2011.
Day said sergeants across the bureau are being trained on the finer points of "walking away," with training for all officers planned over the course of the next year.
But police officials also admit they rarely have the luxury of investing this kind of time and energy. And not everyone will cooperate like Griffin did.
Says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland: "The gun comes out again, points out the window, and all this negotiation goes away, and they go back to being cops."
Which is true. But this is a start.