Throwing Away the Truth 

The Fight Over the County Crisis Center Is More Complicated Than We Know

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PORTLAND COPS' dour assessment of a Multnomah County crisis center they never use—even though it was built as a police resource—was among the deciding factors in Mayor Charlie Hales' proposal to pull city cash from the place when he unveiled his budget late last month.

Simply put, the cops argue they never take people to the 16-bed Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center (CATC) because it's too strict about who's eligible while also requiring officers to call ahead. Hales listened and decided it wasn't worth the $600,000 he could spend on other programs starving because of Portland's $21.5 million deficit.

The move enraged the county. But documents obtained by the Mercury in recent days suggest the cops may not have been telling the whole story—even as an email sent to Hales' office reveals the city has quietly begun work on the kind of facility the police bureau really wants: a walk-in-style crisis center that might receive city funding instead.

And the weird result of the contretemps? Portland and Multnomah County officials are finally having the kind of discussion they ought to have had long before June 2011, when the CATC first opened under the watch of former Mayor Sam Adams. The debate also carries some subtext from last year's vote in favor of a county library district, which cost the city $9 million and poured a surplus into the county's coffers.

"Let's take ego, personalities, and politics out of it," says Commissioner Nick Fish, who co-wrote a city council report with Commissioner Steve Novick that first raised the idea of stripping CATC funding. "There's a very straightforward question on the table: Is the CATC operating as intended? If not, can you improve it? Or can we consider some kind of alternative program?"

The disconnect was first laid bare in a series of Mercury articles and Blogtown posts in January. That reporting revealed that even though the cops have a dedicated crisis line at the county to help them with the CATC, they rarely use it. Data from the county also confirmed that cops hadn't even tried to take someone there—actually checking to see how restrictive, or not, the rules might be.

Those articles caught the eye of Novick, who said at the time he wanted to figure out why both sides shared differing visions for how the CATC should work.

The budget report he wrote with Fish came out in April. And the recommendation against CATC funding was based, in large part, on the word of police Captain Sara Westbrook, newly installed as head of the bureau's behavioral health unit.

Westbrook wrote a memo in May 2012 detailing what she perceived as several hurdles for cops looking to admit someone to the CATC. According to the memo, first reported last week by the Mercury, major sticking points included the CATC's inability to give people shots, take people who are "immediate" threats to themselves, accept people who might be high, or process people who hadn't had a mental health assessment.

That memo, though it was months old, appears to be the verbatim source of a statement sent to the Mercury in January explaining the police bureau's reticence to use the facility. It also was shared in recent weeks with city commissioner's offices.

What the bureau didn't mention, however—possibly because it didn't know, although county officials argue otherwise—is that admissions rules for the CATC had dramatically changed since Westbrook wrote her memo.

A revised set of guidelines drafted in July of that year, and obtained by the Mercury, addressed several of Westbrook's concerns. The CATC can administer shots, it says. Assessments aren't mentioned—they happen on site. And the CATC can take people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others, or who might be high or in withdrawal so long as they're also in crisis. The center can monitor for symptoms and do its own drug testing. If someone's just deliriously drunk, they can be sent upstairs to the Hooper Detox Center.

It might take just a half-hour to spend time with someone, not the major time commitment Westbrook mentioned.

Even the original criteria, also given to the Mercury, were more flexible than Westbrook indicated.

That's the message County Chairman Jeff Cogen has been sharing at city hall. He met with Novick on Monday, May 6, huddled with Commissioner Amanda Fritz on Tuesday, May 7, and was scheduled to meet with Fish on Thursday, May 9. Novick, so far, is receptive. The city and county both pay 20 percent of the CATC's operating costs, with state money making up the difference.

"It would look like the most optimistic version of the CATC that the city thought it was agreeing to two years ago," Novick says. "If this is the way it's going to work, you've got an argument for some city funding."

Hales' office says he's still mulling over changes to his proposed budget, with three public hearings planned in the next few weeks. The CATC has served more than 1,200 people since it opened, hundreds of them referred from emergency rooms where cops currently take people in crisis. Losing the city money would mean losing five of the CATC's 16 beds.

But Hales is still pushing ahead on the walk-in facility, monitoring the progress of a working group. That detail surfaced in an email sent by Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, telling Hales' public safety director, Baruti Artharee, he should have "no worries" over pulling back from the CATC. The Mercury obtained a copy through a public records request.

"It was developed in an antagonistic process where the police came looking for one thing and the mental health community came looking for something different," Renaud said in an interview. "The result satisfied neither. The police haven't used it as they should have or could have. It's a lot of money for a service that probably isn't our highest and greatest need."

Renaud pointed to the kind of walk-in facility he's trying to help the city and county design instead—something like the drop-off center envisioned in the US Department of Justice settlement with the city.

"It's one of the few items in the settlement on the mental health side that seems viable and vital," he says. "But it needs to be a place where all people can come voluntarily and not be blocked or told they're not eligible—and also a place police officers can use efficiently and effectively, like Hooper Detox."

Cogen's office, however, remains hopeful that it might bring along more city commissioners and persuade Hales to reverse himself.

"As the discussions over funding continue, it's important to note how well the CATC is doing serving some of our most vulnerable residents. The CATC came about two years ago as an important partnership between the city and the county," county spokesman David Austin said in a statement."And given these tight fiscal times, these partnerships are more important than ever. We're happy to provide any information on how well this treasured resource works for the city, the police bureau, our mental health providers, and most importantly, our residents."

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