ON A WALL just past two locked doors at Portland’s new facility for people in acute mental health crisis, a small silver sign sits above three beige lockboxes.

It’s easy to miss, but a top administrator at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health says the placard conveys a valuable concept. "We do not allow weapons at Unity," it reads. "Law enforcement, please store your weapons in these lockers before entering patient care areas. Thank you for helping keep our patients, staff and visitors safe."

The message reflects a longstanding practice in Portland of hospitals asking cops to stow their guns before entering a psychiatric ward. And it’s especially resonant in a city still grappling with the federal government’s 2012 conclusion that police have a pattern of using excessive force on people with perceived mental illness.

dirk vanderhart

But those Unity Center lockers are doing little more than collecting dust.

That became clear in mid-April—more than two months after the center opened—when Unity’s vice president, Dr. Christiane Farentinos, sent an email to employees with a subject line punctuated by the word “IMPORTANT.”

At an April 10 meeting with Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officials, Farentinos learned that cops arriving at the hospital for any reason “will arrive armed and will not relinquish their weapons,” she wrote. “This is non-negotiable.”

Because of that policy, Farentinos wrote, staff should be “judicious” when calling 911.

PPB spokesperson Sergeant Pete Simpson confirms the bureau’s stance.

“When a police officer shows up, they’re going in full uniform with all the required equipment,” Simpson says. “Police officers are not going to lock up their weapons to go in there without knowing there are the proper security measures on the other side.”

Simpson says that’s in line with bureau policy, but the absolute nature of this “non-negotiable” position appears to depart from past practice, in which officers have conceded to stowing their weapons before entering a locked ward.

“If you ask any hospital, there is a ‘depends on the person that comes’ kind of thing,” Farentinos told the Mercury in a recent interview. “Some law enforcement officers will say, ‘Okay.’ Others will say, ‘No, I can’t do it.’”

Farentinos shied away from talking about how forcefully she pressed police to agree to ditching their guns, but the practice she described is the status quo at Providence Health, which now operates the only psychiatric beds in the city that aren’t at Unity.

“We can request that officers check their weapons; they are not required to do so,” says Providence spokesperson Gary Walker. “We do have secure storage available.”

At the Oregon State Hospital, the large state-run mental health facility in Salem, policy [PDF] requires officers to stow both guns and pepper spray, according to spokesperson Jonathan Modie.

The rationale for asking police to ditch their weapons is clear. Patients admitted to psychiatric wards are in severe crisis and need medical attention. Some of those people might react poorly to the presence of police officers, advocates say.

“Individuals are experiencing extreme mental states,” Farentinos says. “Their limbs are out of control, their behavior is out of control, so why introduce one more risk into the environment?”

Portland saw the fallout from introducing such a risk in 2001, when police shot and killed a distraught patient named Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot at a now-defunct psychiatric hospital in Sellwood.

Mejia, a Mexico native who did not speak much English, had been arrested two days before, after he came up 20 cents short for bus fare and struggled to communicate with the TriMet driver and responding officers (who beat him in front of passengers). He was eventually taken to the BHC-Pacific Gateway Hospital, where he was able to escape his room, and began menacing staff with a metal rod taken from a door’s exit bar.

Responding cops shot 29-year-old Mejia in the head and chest when pepper spray and beanbag rounds didn’t work.

The case became a rallying cry for a more compassionate police response to people experiencing mental health crises (the man’s family argued at the time that Mejia might have actually been having a seizure). It also helped lead the PPB to arm officers with Tasers, which the US Department of Justice found Portland police have since used excessively on people with perceived mental illness.

The Mejia shooting is still on the minds of local advocates, some of whom point to it as a case in point for why guns shouldn’t be carried into psychiatric wards like Unity.

“The fact that [police] refuse to put their guns down before they go in is outrageous,” says Dan Handelman, of Portland Copwatch. “That’s why Jose Mejia Poot is dead.”

Unity is a very different place than the closed, deficient Pacific Gateway facility. It employs an emergency model designed specifically to aid people in psychiatric crisis, and has 102 inpatient beds for the most severe cases.

Partly because cops won’t use Unity’s gun lockers, Farentinos is working with the bureau on an alternative plan, and she’s effusive about the PPB’s help. When police do respond to Unity—as they have more than 50 times this year—Farentinos has instructed staff to arrange for officers to meet with patients outside of the psychiatric ward, but still within the secure area separate from the general public.

“We will have to either arrange for a room outside of the unit or delay the interaction if the patient is in no clinical conditions [sic] to talk,” Farentinos wrote in her April 13 staff email.

That’s possible when officers need to speak with patients in the course of an investigation. It’s not practical when the nature of the call is more urgent.

According to records from the PPB, such urgent calls have occurred regularly at Unity. From January 1 to April 27, officers were dispatched to the center 51 times. (Unity opened on January 31; the parcel police analyzed included the Legacy Research Institute next to the center.)

The bureau characterizes 13 of those calls as a response to an “immediate” threat to safety, meaning a situation that was still playing out. Another 16 calls were because of “cold” threats to safety that were less pressing.

The most frequent type of call to the center was for what the bureau classified as “nonviolent/civil” incidents, which Simpson says encompass “calls related to property crime, medical, detail, administrative, civil issues, etc.” Police responded to 18 of those calls through April 27.

Farentinos wouldn’t offer specifics on police responses to Unity other than to say that many of the center’s 911 calls were for incidents that occurred in Unity’s parking lot, or for medical emergencies where patients needed to be escorted by police to another hospital.

“We have called many times because of that,” she said of the medical calls.

It’s unclear from the PPB data how many calls came from parking lot issues and how many led to cops entering the secure psychiatric unit with their weapons. Simpson says a crime analyst’s quick perusal of the specifics showed just three were for medical assistance.

According to Portland police directives, any emergency response to a secure facility like Unity must include at least four officers and one sergeant. Cops are required to notify their supervisor before entering the facility. Lower-priority calls get a more relaxed response.

Everyone, police included, agrees that keeping officers away from Unity as much as possible is ideal.

“If you go on the theory that this is a psychiatric hospital... calling the police really should be a last resort,” says Simpson. “If the person is in crisis, and you’re calling for us to deal with a person in crisis, it seems counterintuitive.”

Advocates, too, stress that calls to police should be kept to a minimum.

“Uniformed police appearing on any inpatient unit—firearms or no firearms—can be intimidating to patients and counterproductive to the quality delivery of mental health care,” says Chris Bouneff, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Oregon. “If a hospital is managing its milieu well and has enough quality staff and quality training, the need to summon police should be very minimal.”