HERE'S THE THING about Police Chief Mike Reese—he's consistent. Very consistent. Every time his police officers shoot and/or kill someone in the throes of a mental health crisis, he reliably does several things:
First, he defends his troops. Then he talks about some kind of policy change the bureau is making or exploring, either directly in response to the latest tragedy or just generally. And finally, he firmly and persuasively lays serious blame at the feet of a starved mental health system that's forced his officers to add the unwelcome role of counselor to their usual gig as peacekeeper.
But this month, after cops shot Bradley Morgan—a suicidal man who waved a realistic replica handgun—Reese tweaked the usual pitch. And maybe it's because federal investigators are looking at whether his bureau has a pattern of inappropriately using force against the mentally ill.
He gathered some damning statistics on suicides (calls to police have doubled since 2001, even though the actual suicide rate has held relatively steady), mental illness (commitment "holds" have nearly doubled since 1998), and treatment (beds and funding have dropped) and bundled them in a report.
Then he gathered a coterie of service providers and mental health experts to help make his point:
We're adapting as much as we can, as fast as we can, but the problem is way bigger than the police bureau.
The unveiling came at the Tuesday, February 14, meeting of the Downtown Public Safety Action Committee, a group of business leaders, social services advocates, and government officials.
Sounding a lot like the mayoral candidate he almost was, Reese implored the room to help with problems like unemployment, homelessness, a lack of treatment facilities, and inadequate access to health insurance.
"Those are things all of us in this community have to own," he said.
Reese is right, of course. It's good the police bureau is doing things like appointing a full-time inspector to review cops who use force. It's good crisis training is now a "core" training element for officers.
But what good is any of it if there isn't a triage center where officers can hand off someone in crisis, or if there isn't money for preventative care that can keep someone from going off the deep end.
The response was heartening. "What could we lobby for?" asked Steve Trujillo, the committee's co-chair.
But Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland says even that help won't be enough.
Cops will never be fully out of the equation, he says, but minimizing their role—making sure preventive care looms larger than public safety—requires a higher power.
"This will take the Legislature," he says, "the voters. Voters who can vote in people who won't cut the safety net."
Or, maybe, voters who might finally approve a ballot measure dedicated to mental health treatment. Because eventually, the sheer number of crisis calls works against cops. They'll eventually end up shooting someone.