Corvallis doubles down on police role in mental health crises as cities elsewhere do the opposite

Corvallis doubles down on police role in mental health crises as cities elsewhere do the opposite
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A Corvallis police officer and behavioral health specialist responded in January to a call at the Corvallis Daytime Drop-in Center, an organization that provides resources to people experiencing homelessness. The two responders were part of a new team dedicated to addressing mental health crises in the city. But it didn’t go well.

A person had locked themselves in the bathroom and wasn’t responding to drop-in center staff. Unable to see the person, and unsure if they were safe, staff called for help.

Drop-in center staff say an armed police officer arrived with a behavioral health specialist carrying a Taser.

Center staff eventually asked the police team to leave. According to staff at the drop-in center, the person would have been cited for trespassing if police had forced the person out of the bathroom, possibly preventing them from returning.

“We just kind of said, well, we don’t want to trespass that person,” said Maddie Bean, the drop-in center’s street outreach coordinator. “We’d rather just deal with this on our own.”

A woman in a black shirt gestures to an empty yard at the Corvallis Drop-In Center.

Maddie Bean, street outreach coordinator at the Corvallis Drop-In Center, gives a tour of the building. Bean thinks law enforcement should not play a central role in mental health crisis response. Courtnie Wilson/High School Journalism Institute

In response to law enforcement killing a disproportionate number of people with mental illness each year, cities across the country have launched programs to replace police with mental health experts on crisis calls whenever possible. At the same time, Corvallis has done the opposite, pairing a mental health expert with police, entrenching law enforcement’s role in crisis response.

Last year, the Corvallis Police Department and Benton County Behavioral Health launched a pilot called Crisis Outreach Response and Engage, or CORE. The program only operates during business hours.

Officials say it has achieved some success. The team resolved more than half of the 268 mental health calls they responded to at the scene in the first six months of the program, Police Chief Nick Hurley told the Corvallis City Council in February. Only 1% ended in arrest.

But some who work with vulnerable communities have had different experiences.

To help the person locked in the bathroom at the drop-in center, staff took the door off the hinges. They were able to talk to the person and connect them with long-term mental health care. The police response didn’t help, staff said.

“It was not effective,” Bean said. “We were the ones who ended up deescalating and dealing with the situation, not that team.”

In Bean’s experience, the most vulnerable people in the community are scared of police and don’t trust them to respond to crises. One reason, she said, is officers’ appearance.

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“It has an underlying message that you don’t trust the community that you’re going into if you’re feeling the need to wear this vest and to have a gun,” she said.

Police also rely heavily on the criminal justice system to address problems when providing services might be more effective, Bean said. And their involvement can have dire consequences.

Over 20% of people killed by police have mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database of fatal US shootings by on-duty police officers. In Corvallis, mental health calls have increased 59% since 2018, Hurley told city council.

In adopting CORE and updating the city’s approach, Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber said the city looked at non-police options but chose a hybrid model to make it easier to keep responders safe and triage mental health calls.

Traber pushed back against the idea Corvallis is behind other cities’ police reform progress, pointing out their department hasn’t been militarized and has embraced community policing at a time when other agencies were doing the opposite.

“We have been evolving our police response for years,” Traber said. “I think we’re ahead of the country.”

Traber, who was briefed in February on the CORE program, said he thinks it’s going well.

In June, the Corvallis Police Department announced that it was one of three departments chosen in the country to pilot a US Department of Justice-sponsored program called Crisis Response and Intervention Training. The 40-hour training is designed to better prepare officers to help people experiencing behavioral health crises. The federal government hopes to use the trial to develop a curriculum available to every law enforcement agency in the country.

“I think that it’s important that citizens receive assistance from someone that can help them and it pertains to the situation that they’re in,” said Cornelia Sigworth, associate deputy director of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the agency developing the training.

Without a 24/7 crisis response team, Bean acknowledged that burden will continue to fall on the police.

Traber said a round-the-clock response team might be coming. This fall, the CORE team plans to add another mental health expert and expand their operating hours. And although he hopes the pilot program will become permanent, he said an entirely non-police response is also possible.

Bean is skeptical training can ever make the police the appropriate response.

“It would be a long time and require a lot of shifting in how they respond to things for it to be a positive interaction,” Bean said. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

–Courtnie Wilson, Salem-Keizer Early College High School

–Ming Kim, Cleveland High School

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.

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