Illustration by Scrappers

IT'S A LITTLE-KNOWN but potentially life-saving piece of the criminal justice system: Any time a Portland cop picks up someone in crisis, that officer can call a special number at the Multnomah County Mental Health Call Center where a trained worker will drop whatever they're doing to help.

It's supposed to be another tool for beleaguered cops who are increasingly on the front lines of crisis response—a public safety Batphone meant to slice through red tape and dispense on-the-ground details about a patient's condition, triggers, and treatment history.

Which would be a great idea—if the cops ever used it.

County data, obtained through a public records request, shows the hotline has received no more than 27 calls in a year since 2010—a fraction of both the thousands of mental health contacts cops report and the tens of thousands of calls that annually flood the call center's main number, 503-988-4888.

Also troubling, the data shows officers have never called the hotline to attempt to use two mental health facilities designed, in part, to make their jobs easier: the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center (CATC) in Northeast Portland and a walk-in urgent crisis center in Southeast run by a county health provider. The 16-bed CATC, which is partially funded by Portland, was specifically hailed as a police resource when it opened in June 2011.

At a time when the bureau is demanding yet another mental health center as part of a federal push for police and mental health reforms—potentially adding millions more in public safety costs—the numbers raise stark questions about how well, and how little, cops are using what's already in place.

"It's a stunner," Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch said after reviewing the data, first posted on Blogtown. "They're given these resources, and they're not using them."

The bureau's reluctance to use the CATC isn't a surprise. Police Chief Mike Reese had previously confirmed that his officers had never dropped anyone there—complaining the CATC wasn't working because "they have procedures against" cops directly taking people to it ["Staying on the Beat," Feature, Jan 16].

But Reese, it turns out, was parsing the truth. Officers can take people to the facility, provided they call ahead and set up an assessment—using the special police hotline. County officials also say the CATC facility is rarely full, with two beds usually available at all times. And they tout another bonus: Patients can stay as long as it takes, sometimes for weeks, and leave only with a treatment plan in place.

Which all goes to say: If something isn't working for the police bureau, that's because, as the data actually shows, the police bureau isn't even trying.

That disconnect, amplified by Reese's comments, has irked county officials. It's also raised eyebrows in city hall. Portland, facing a $25 million deficit, spends close to $600,000 a year helping keep the CATC running.

Mayor Charlie Hales' office says the CATC and call center have yet to come up in preliminary budget talks between the city and county. But City Commissioner Steve Novick isn't waiting to say that both sides need to figure out what isn't working.

"When this facility opened, Portlanders were told that the police could take people in a mental health crisis there," says Novick. "If the police have a problem with the county's procedures, the city and county need to sit down and work that out. If police officers just aren't aware of the procedures, we need to fix that."

Reese's office wasn't able to comment on the data in time for the Mercury's press deadline. But the police bureau's gold standard remains a 24-hour drop-off center, where officers don't have to spend any time on intake—something they used to have in the old, Providence-run Crisis Triage Center until it closed because of budget cuts.

Of course, even with the feds backing the bureau's request, that kind of center will likely require millions of dollars, advocates say, and may not be ready for months or years. The CATC isn't a panacea—space is limited and the hardest cases must still be sent to a hospital. But in the meantime, cops are still left dumping people in emergency rooms or at the jail.

"We'd love to have the police take advantage of these resources," David Austin, Multnomah County spokesman, said of both the CATC and the police hotline. "We would really like to find ways to not go back and forth about perceptions of how some place might work. What we all want is a good outcome for someone in crisis."