The Bend Police Department has a special weapon in its fight against mental illness — Abby Levin, a licensed professional counselor. Levin, who works for the Deschutes County Health Department, responds to mental health-related calls alongside uniformed officers. She’s been on Bend streets since January.
A five-year state grant has enabled her and two coworkers to work out of Bend Police headquarters, where Levin is a “co-responder” on calls involving people with a suspected mental health problem.
She doesn’t wear a gun or a badge, or even a bulletproof vest (too intimidating, she says). Instead, she uses her years of experience to spot signs of severe mental illness, de-escalate tense situations and connect struggling people with help.
Despite their crime-fighting mission, law enforcement officers are spending more time helping people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Although licensed professionals have assisted police for years, notably in Salem and Eugene, having a mental health worker embedded with Bend Police officers is viewed as a cutting-edge practice in Oregon.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the co-responder program has been highly effective.
“It’s been really nice to see the openness from officers,” said Levin, 33. “They’re coming to me with questions about how to make those calls go better and get better outcomes.”
The ‘new asylums’
An estimated 20% of jail inmates and 15% of state prison inmates in the U.S. have a serious mental illness, according to recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That means the number of people with serious mental illness in jail and prison in the U.S. — 382,000 — is about 10 times higher than the combined population of all the remaining state mental hospitals, which is about 38,000.
Mentally ill inmates remain in jail much longer than other inmates — on average five times longer. This is typically because mentally ill inmates have difficulty understanding and following the rules. Their stays in jail can stretch more than a year as they undergo mental health evaluations and competency hearings prior to standing trial, and await transfer to another facility, such as the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.
All this adds up in the state budget, as the cost to incarcerate an adult in Oregon is $108.26 per day, according to the Oregon Department of Justice. It also costs more on average to house an inmate with a mental illness, due to costs associated with behavioral management.
Typically, these people are only in jail for low-level criminal offenses, such as trespassing or disorderly conduct. A cold day in February illustrates the problem.
On Feb. 10, three people were transported to the Deschutes County jail after repeated contacts with officers. In each case, the person had numerous prior arrests and was on release from custody in several criminal cases in lieu of going to the state mental hospital.
• In the morning, police were dispatched to Coin-Op Laundry, where they found a man with a puddle below his chair who appeared to have urinated himself. The man had previously been trespassed from the business. He was reportedly aggressive with police at first but ultimately agreed to leave. He reportedly headed straight for 7-Eleven, where he’d also been excluded and was arrested after allegedly harassing customers and refusing to leave.
• A woman sat and ate a meal at Toomie’s restaurant and then refused to pay. When a Bend Police officer responded, the woman handed him the bill and told him to pay it so she could leave. He declined and the woman was arrested for violating a exclusion order that included downtown Bend.
• Police were called to Scandia RV Park to a report of an unwanted woman who wouldn’t leave. Officers told the woman to leave and didn’t arrest her. Forty minutes later, she returned to walk around the commons area of the park.
At this point, officers wrote her an exclusion notice forbidding her from entering the property. As police were driving away, they spotted the woman walking back onto the park and she was arrested.
One of Levin’s main goals in the new program is to keep people with severe mental illness out of jail.
“It’s about the worst place you could take them,” she said.
One reason is the inmates often stop receiving their current treatments, and their illness gets worse. Behavioral problems could land them in isolation, which can also affect them negatively.
Michael Shults, commander of the Deschutes County jail, agrees.
“It is the top thing we have to combat in any local jail or police agency,” said Shults, who transferred last year from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “There is not one county out of the 36 counties in Oregon not struggling with the increase in mental illness and/or drug addiction in Oregon.”
Deschutes County commissioners are mulling the placement of a stabilization center, a top priority for Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson and the county health department.
Shults believes the location of the center will be critical to its success. Specifically, he wants it close to the jail, so the option is stark in the mind of a person with mental illness.
“If it’s on some other end of town, they’re not as likely to want to use it, in my opinion,” he said. “When it’s right there, they understand the choice.”
Intervening with people in crisis, isn’t something Bend Police or jail deputies should have to do, said Chris Bouneff, head of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Bouneff said the health care industry’s failure has fallen in the lap of law enforcement.
“It’s encouraging that Bend is doing this, but they have to do it,” Bouneff said. “It’s discouraging because this is not the function of law enforcement.”
Each shift, Levin is paired with one of three officers in the police department’s Crisis Response Team, including officer Jake Chandler. Chandler has made one arrest so far in 2019, and it was because the subject had a warrant. “I didn’t have a choice,” he said.
Levin and Chandler are dispatched on less serious calls, like suspected trespassing or disorderly conduct.
When they approach a subject, introductions are usually handled by Chandler, who stands at least 6 feet tall and has the thick build of a linebacker. He’s become adept at disarming subjects with his words.
It starts with: “Hi, I’m Jake, and this is Abby.”
Chandler isn’t big on titles, like “officer.”
“When I say, ‘I’m Officer Chandler,’ I’ve found that it can be kind of intimidating for people, especially people living with mental health illness,” he said.
Along with using first names, Chandler stays calm and maintains good eye contact, because it’s not just titles that can be intimidating — uniforms and bulletproof vests and sidearms are, as well.
As in any other city in America, working with mental illness in Bend means spending time with homeless and substance-addicted populations. The pair regularly eats lunch at the Bethlehem Inn homeless shelter. They want to seem familiar, and harmless, when they approach a person in mental health crisis.
It might be that people in crisis can feel Chandler isn’t interested in arresting them. He doesn’t use the word “crazy.”
“It’s one of the worst things you can call somebody with a mental health illness,” Chandler said. “People get called ‘crazy’ all the time by their family. They’re not crazy — they have a medical condition, like if somebody has a broken leg. They have something going on — it doesn’t make them crazy, or broken.”
Levin says a proactive approach to mental illness makes financial sense for local government, so it can move people in crisis to a facility less expensive than a jail or a hospital, like one of several small residential treatment centers in the area. It’s also safer for the community to address a person’s mental illness before there’s a major event involving the loss of life.
It’s why a big part of Levin and Chandler’s job is follow-up. It’s why they frequently give out their cell numbers to people they meet on the street. Sometimes, those subjects text to say they’re in crisis and need help, or that they missed an appointment or court hearing.
When he was interviewed this month, Chandler had gotten a text earlier that day that said, “I’m doing OK today.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org