Responding to Individuals in Crisis Part of the Job for Tigard Police Officers
“Police work isn’t all cops and robbers, gangs or what you see on TV,” says Madison Thesing, a former public management fellow for the City of Tigard. “There is a very prevalent human services side to the work.” Thesing observed the social service side of the job first-hand on a ride-along with Tigard Police Officer Heather Wakem.
During that experience, Officer Wakem received a call about a woman, known for exhibiting erratic and disruptive behavior at local businesses, who was screaming and walking into traffic on Pacific Highway. The woman had a large, painful and infected injury on her shoulder brought on by self-harming behaviors. She needed immediate medical attention.
When Officer Wakem approached her to talk about going to a hospital, the woman began hitting and kicking the officer. Thesing was impressed by how Officer Wakem stayed calm throughout the ordeal.
According to Cmdr. James McDonald, “When individuals are in crisis, it is law enforcement who gets called.” Cmdr. McDonald, who oversees the Tigard Police Department’s patrol unit, has noticed an increase in calls related to mental health crises over the years due to reductions in social service funding. Officers receive crisis intervention training, but it is preferable to have social service partners involved before issues escalate.
Mental Health Calls Take a Toll
Cmdr. McDonald identifies time as the biggest challenge for these incidents.
For example, in January 2018, the department received 120 calls for service related to mental health issues. These incidents combined with calls related to homelessness amounted to 160 hours of police time or one full-time position. Additionally, it is common for more than one officer to respond to one of these calls.
More than four hours elapsed between the time Officer Wakem arrived on the scene and found a hospital that could admit the woman with the injury, so medical staff could treat her. During that time, Officer Wakem was unavailable to respond to other emergencies. When patrol officers are minimally staffed on a shift, a prolonged interaction such as this one may leave only two or three officers available to field calls for the entire city.
Thesing heard from the doctor that the woman would likely be discharged after a few hours. She said it was eye-opening to learn that someone whose mental state had led to self-harm and possible harm to others could be out in the community the next day, potentially having a similar episode and requiring another police intervention.
Unfortunately, resources needed to address underlying causes of mental illness and then maintain a healthy support system are not readily available, which can lead to a cycle of escalating behaviors, police calls and emergency room visits. This dynamic can take a toll on individuals and the community and places a strain on police resources.