Starting next Tuesday, May 15, the Portland Police Bureau, the city's 911 dispatchers, and clinicians at Multnomah County's Mental Health Call Center will finally be ready to launch a long-overdue experiment that could pave the way for a dramatic shift in how suicide calls are handled.

Under a six-month pilot project approved yesterday by the Portland City Council, dispatchers will stop automatically calling the police out on all suicide calls. Instead, dispatchers will take a moment to assess each call and if certain conditions are met—if the caller isn't in public, posing an immediate danger to anyone else, or doesn't have a weapon—those calls will start going to the county's 24-hour call center. (National 24-hour hotlines are also available : 800-273-TALK and 800-SUICIDE.)

Update May 11: County spokesman David Austin clarifies that while city documents say May 15, calls may not start being transferred to the county center for a few more weeks. He says that while the county is ready to begin, the city yet hasn't finished training its dispatchers.//

The project launches as police officials work to develop (and find cash for) a specialized mental health unit that handle other calls involving mental illness, an idea first reported by the Mercury. It also follows the heavily publicized police shooting of a suicidal man, Bradley Morgan, this winter—a case that wouldn't have been part of the current phase of the call-transfer project.

"This is a first step for our organization to try to move some of our calls over to what I would say are more qualified mental health professionals," Lisa Turley, director of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, told the council. "It's a six-month pilot at this point, and we'll re-evaluate as we go."

The plan was announced months ago, and the agencies involved say they needed that time to develop "protocols" that, they felt, wouldn't endanger anyone. For instance, they settled a list of calls that will always go to police, no matter what:

• The suicidal subject is threatening to jump from a bridge or structure.
• The suicidal subject needs medical attention.
• The suicidal subject has a weapon and is outside/in public and not in a building or residence.
• The suicidal subject has a weapon inside a building or residence and other people are present.

"Lives are at stake," said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees BOEC, "so we didn't want to rush into something."

Advocates on mental illness and police issues also were on hand to offer their encouragement for a good first step—even as they warned that a public safety system that still sends most suicide calls (and mental health calls) to police "effectively criminalizes mental illness."

James Mazzocco of the Mental Health Association of Portland read from a lengthy statement (PDF) on that point.

To contemplate suicide is not unusual, nor does it indicate the need for police action. It is not, in itself, a threat to anyone. It is not illegal. It is a normal symptom of a set of common illnesses.... People with mental illness call 911 because they are desperate, but operators do not have the time to listen until the caller’s suicidal feeling passes. They are there to dispatch police, fire, and medical personnel as needed. A calm and patient approach is, however, integral to the Multnomah County Crisis Hotline. It makes sense to simply transfer calls by the suicidal from the BOEC to the crisis hotline.

Fritz and police and county officials say they will review the project, set to sunset in November, to see how it's working and to see if they can expand it. Fritz envisions, budget-willing, adding a second call-taker to BOEC who could dig into public-safety records when someone in crisis calls, presumably providing better information about a caller to either cops or crisis-line workers.

Turley says dispatchers are being trained in how to decide where to send calls, and promised, after a question by Randy Leonard, that no matter what BOEC's protocols say, dispatchers will be using "a lot of discretion."

And even if a call is transferred to the crisis center, that doesn't mean that crisis workers can't call 911 back and re-transfer a call to the police if the crisis worker decides the call has taken a turn or if they weren't supposed to have received it in the first place.

That ambiguity, however, troubled Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman, who pointed to the Morgan shooting as an instance when a caller was doing okay with a dispatcher but then shut down when the cops took over.

"Who decides when it's time to stop talking?" he asked.