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The city's police force trains to respond with compassion to the needs of community members.

COURTESY PHOTO: JAY AUSLANDER - A member of the Crisis Intervention Team, right, attempts to resolve a difficult situation being acted out by a volunteer, left.Police officers respond regularly to crimes such as burglary, assault and fraud. But there are occasions when police confront an individual who is in the midst of a crisis, perhaps mental-health related.

These types of calls can keep police agencies scrambling, and it's not a problem unique to big city departments, such as Portland. Police in smaller cities, including King City, handle a number of challenging calls related to quality of life. Fortunately, tools are available to educate these officers.

When it comes to mental health-related calls in King City, Police Chief Ernie Happala said, "For the most part, we're able to keep up right now. There has been, within the last year, a serious uptick in the amount of calls."

In a dramatic example, King City police responded six to eight times to a particular home in just one day earlier this year.

Speaking of the increasing call load, Happala said, "You would like to say it's cyclical, but it seems to be rising everywhere."

In King City, police, as an example, may respond to a citizen who is concerned that a neighbor is speaking incoherently. In this situation police would need to determine if the individual may have a mental health issue. Police may also respond to a depressed person who may or may not be on alcohol or drugs.

"Then it's just those who do have a mental health issue, who either can't afford to be on their medication anymore, or don't like the way it makes them feel," Happala said, noting a person's behavior can get out of control if he or she cycles off medication. "It's just a matter of trying to intervene the best that we can."

Happala added, "It's up to us to go out there and try to see is this something that would require a mental health component or mental health team to come in and help us out, or is this something that maybe we push towards aging services."

There are quality of life issues that can affect senior citizens.

"You get a lot of fixed-income people who can't afford their medication after paying rent….or the medication just got so expensive," Happala said, noting seniors may suffer from depression, or perhaps, loneliness. "I've been in homes where a lady's cat just died and she didn't have anywhere to bury her cat. That was the end of the world for her – that was all she could deal with."

The King City Police Department responded to 306 "assist" calls between March 2018 and March 2019. These calls can be minor in nature, but, in some cases, a person could be suffering from a mental health problem. During the same time period, police responded to four drug overdoses, two attempted suicides, eight suicide-threat calls and 141 welfare checks.

Many of these calls can be perplexing for officers who are not accustomed to mental health-related life situations. But there is help in the form of the county's Crisis Intervention Team.

According to the CIT Center at the University of Memphis, CIT law enforcement officers are better positioned to respond to 911 calls involving behavioral health crises. Officers take part in a 40-hour comprehensive training that stresses mental health-related topics, crisis resolution, de-escalation, and access to community-based services.

King City officers have participated in CIT training in the past. Jay Auslander, Washington County's mental health and addictions jail diversion systems coordinator, said officers from area police departments are providing positive feedback on the program. For instance, after each class, an officer fills out an evaluation.

"Responses are overwhelmingly positive," Auslander said. "It's always humbling to me when I read (the evaluations) and I see examples of how it has helped them."

Topics from the classes include civil commitment, officer wellness, suicide and non-suicidal self-injury, veteran's issues and aging. Officers also learn about dementia and abuse in later life. Trainers are expert in local-subject matters.

For King City police, CIT is proving beneficial.

"I think it's an eye opener for the officers," Happala said. "You start to learn how to talk to people and how to handle a situation."

The King City Police Department does have an advantage when it comes to responding to mental health calls. The advantage is the department's smaller size as compared with surrounding police agencies.

"That's the cool thing about here (King City)," Happala said. "We're not so busy to where we can't spend time with people….we can spend that time."COURTESY PHOTO: JAY AUSLANDER - King City police use role-playing scenarios to hone their skills in defusing crises, including saving the lives of people who are suicidal.


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