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by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Portland Police Chief Mike Reese has changed direction and plans to establish a specially trained unit to handle people with mental illness. The decision was prompted by a federal Department of Justice probe of the bureau.In a significant change of direction for the Portland police, Chief Mike Reese said Wednesday that he was forming a team of officers with special training to deal with situations involving people with mental illness.

The move comes in response to a September federal Department of Justice investigation that found Portland police used excessive force in dealing with people suffering from mental illness. The city of Portland has received an extension, but is required to come up with a plan to satisfy the Justice Department if it intends to avoid a federal lawsuit.

One of the critical components of that plan comes in the form of Wednesday’s announcement. In the mid-1990s, Portland developed a specialized unit called a Crisis Intervention Team to work with mental health advocates and on calls involving mental illness. That team was based on a model begun in Memphis and widely hailed nationwide.

After the September 2006 death of homeless psychiatric patient James Chasse Jr. while in police custody, Portland police developed a new model that provided all officers with crisis training and eliminated the specialized squad. Critics, including officers who developed CIT in Memphis, have said that the Portland model was insufficient greatly because not all officers have the psychological makeup to deal with the mentally ill.

But until Wednesday, Portland police had maintained its faith in its current model.

Sense of community

Three weeks ago, Reese announced a plan that would pair police officers with social workers in responding to mental health crisis calls. But that plan would have required a major expenditure of funds.

Portland police spokesman Pete Simpson says that the Project Respond model for pairing police with social workers is still under consideration. But establishing a CIT unit composed solely of police officers appears to represent a more cost effective means of complying with the Justice Department requirements. The new model would not require any new hires, just additional training for those officers selected for the CIT squad.

“In some ways, this is a return to how we did things (earlier), but the difference now is we are going to continue to train everybody,” Simpson says.

Cathy Horey, a Portland social worker who helped create the original Portland police CIT team in the mid-'90s, says she is overjoyed at Wednesday’s announcement.

In a series of Tribune stories in that began in 2008, Horey had spoken out about the need for a specialized crisis team.

“I am so excited that they finally came to their senses,” Horey says. “It took the Department of Justice, I guess. It’s going to save lives.”

The elite CIT squad, Horey says, was able to establish important relationships with people in the mental health community. And for the first three years the police maintained that CIT squad, she says, there were no incidents of harm to subjects or police officers as a result of calls involving mental illness.

“You had that sense of community so when Officer Smith was called, people knew who he was because he was a CIT officer,” Horey says. “They had been involved in his training. The community was invested.”

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