February 26, 2024

Lawsuit alleges that Ore. County failed to first dispatch a mental health response team to crisis calls

By Maxine Bernstein

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. — Washington County routinely fails to send trained physicians to calls involving people in a mental health crisis, instead sending deputies or police who tend to “aggravate” the encounters, a court case claims.

Disability Rights Oregon and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon are suing the county and its emergency response system, saying they violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by failing to ensure that mental health professionals provide first aid for behavioral crises in non-violent situations . .

The lawsuit argues that the federal law extends to a county’s emergency services.

While the county contracts with non-police clinical responders through LifeWorks NW, and the sheriff’s office also has a trained mental health response team that pairs a deputy with a mental health provider, it dispatches 911 The province’s reporting system routinely dispatches emergency services or police to a crime scene. Mental health crisis workers are called in, often leading to unnecessary use of force, arrest or hospitalization, the complaint said.

“As a result of County and Agency policies and practices, people with mental health disabilities who experience a mental health crisis in the County often do not receive the emergency medical care they need and instead face a range of adverse consequences,” the lawsuit said. claims.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in Portland, seeks an injunction requiring the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency to ensure that mental health professionals are the default first responders to mental health calls if there is no access to weapons or no threat has been identified.

For example, for one year, from March 1, 2022, to February 28, 2023, the county sent armed officers as first responders to 100% of calls coded by 911 dispatchers as “Behavioral Health Incidents,” according to the complaint. The same applied to calls coded as “welfare checks” — a code often used for mental health calls — and to any calls coded as “suicide threats,” the complaint says.

Washington County has spent the past two months working with Disability Rights Oregon and the ACLU “on ways to address their concerns” and avoid lawsuits, said Julie McCloud, a county spokesperson.

The province is disappointed when it learns of the lawsuit through the media, McCloud said.

“We are committed to providing professional and compassionate mental health care to community members experiencing a mental health crisis,” McCloud said by email. “For more than twenty years, we have worked diligently with our partners and stakeholders to develop a system of care that meets these deep and complex needs.”

The lawsuit alleges the county’s emergency response system does not route mental health calls to the county’s Mobile Crisis Teamwhich consists of LifeWorks NW mental health clinicians who conduct in-person crisis assessments – sometimes with law enforcement or community partners – to help resolve psychiatric emergencies and prevent unnecessary hospitalizations or emergency room visits.

Although the Mobile Crisis Team is intended to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the county has failed to adequately fund or staff the service, the lawsuit says. “In practice, this means that the only non-police crisis response option in the county is largely unavailable – and certainly not widely available 24/7, such as emergency physical health services,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Mobile Crisis Team is not often called, the lawsuit states. Washington County law enforcement called the Mobile Crisis Team to the scene with 106 calls in 2021 and 2022, according to data from the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services.

Washington County disputed the lawsuit’s allegation involving the 18-year-old Mobile Crisis Team. That team can be sent directly to a mental crisis call by a crisis line caller if there are no signs of threatening behavior or access to weapons, McCloud said. According to McCloud, the non-police crisis team responded to more than 2,100 calls in 2022.

The lawsuit cites several examples of officers using force against people in crisis before mental health professionals were called to help.

One of the examples involves Joshua Wesley, who ended up in the emergency room of a hospital in Hillsboro, where he tried to grab an officer’s gun and the deputy then stabbed Wesley multiple times in October 2022.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 24, 2022, Wesley, now 28, had called a Veterans Crisis line while having suicidal thoughts for the second time in three months and desperately seeking help from a mental health professional, according to the lawsuit. He had purposely avoided calling 911 because he didn’t want a response from police, the complaint said.

While on the crisis line, he was asked if he had any weapons in the house or if he had hurt himself, and he said he had recently cut himself, had knives in the house but none on him and that he was suicidal. The crisis line caller forwarded his call to a Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency emergency response service.

Despite Wesley’s request for a non-police response, the district coordinator first coded the call as a priority 2 “welfare check,” meaning there appeared to be “an imminent threat,” and then changed the description of the call in a ‘suicide attempt’. ,” and upgraded it to Priority 1, which indicates an “imminent threat to life,” according to the complaint.

Five sheriff’s deputies responded to the parking lot of Wesley’s apartment complex. The first deputy who responded noted that the sheriff’s dispatch system had warnings that Wesley might have weapons, was “resisting arrest” and was “suicidal.” The deputy called Wesley, who said he felt anxious and paranoid and wanted to kill himself, the complaint said.

The deputy asked Wesley to come outside and he did, even though he explained he didn’t want to with five deputies in the parking lot, the complaint said. He complied with officers’ instructions and was not aggressive, the complaint said.

The deputy handcuffed Wesley, put him on hold and had him taken by ambulance to Kaiser Westside Hospital. There, he was taken to an unsecured room in the emergency department, where a nurse attempted to check his vital signs, the suit said.

Midway through the stop, Wesley walked out of the room and tried to grab the responding deputy’s gun, repeating, “Let me kill myself,” the complaint said. The two struggled and the deputy stabbed Wesley repeatedly with a knife to prevent him from reaching for his gun. Wesley was stabbed in the chest, stomach and head and was hospitalized for three weeks before being transferred to prison on criminal charges.

He pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer and was sentenced in April to five years’ probation and ordered to attend mental health court, court records show.

“I joined this cause because I strongly believe that mental health care should go to those who need it. So many things can go wrong when police are at the forefront of responding to mental health crises,” Wesley said in a statement. “I hope my story helps others in crisis and can bring about positive change in the way we respond to mental health emergencies, both in the province and across the country.”

The county denied Wesley “the opportunity to be clinically assessed and stabilized in his home.” Instead, they exacerbated his crisis and provided him with an emergency response service that is dissimilar to that provided to people living in a physical health emergency in the province,” the complaint states.

Deputies were also dispatched to other people who were reportedly walking aimlessly in traffic. Despite deputies’ belief that these people were experiencing a mental health crisis, there were no calls for first responders to the scene, resulting in violence and arrests, the complaint said.

For example, early on February 6, 2021, one woman would not leave the street on Southwest Farmington Road in Beaverton. A deputy eventually grabbed her arm and pulled her to the ground as she retreated, the suit said. A second deputy stepped in to help put the handcuffs on her as she struggled. She was taken by ambulance to St. Vincent Hospital in police custody, was involuntarily hospitalized and faced three criminal charges, including one misdemeanor. The suit did not identify the allegations.

According to Washington County, the sheriff’s office began pairing specially trained deputies with mental health doctors Mental health response team to respond to behavioral health calls from 13 years ago. From 2019 through 2022, the mental health response team responded to more than 12,000 calls for help, McCloud said.

“The MHRT program has been so successful – not only in crisis intervention, but also in safety planning and diverting people from the criminal justice system – that several city police departments in Washington County are now participating in the program as well,” she said.

Mental health crisis response teams provide first responder services elsewhere in the country and in Oregon, such as CAHOOTS of Eugene mobile van. The two-member CAHOOTS van in Eugene consists of a doctor and a skilled crisis worker who respond to non-violent mental health calls as an alternative to police.

In Portland, there is a city commissioner who oversees the fire department given the cuts to Portland Street Response, a non-police invention team that sends mental health professionals and EMTs to help people in crisis on the streets. Portland Street Response does not currently provide 24 hour, seven days a week coverage.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit organization serving people with mental health conditions and their families, is calling on mental health clinicians and peer support workers to be the first to respond to mental health calls, not the police, even though law enforcement “can still play a role.” role in some mental health crises,” the complaint said.

Jake Cornett, executive director and CEO of Disability Rights Oregon, said everyone deserves access to mental health care. “Your zip code should not determine whether armed police or mental health providers show up when you call needing life-saving mental health care,” he said in a statement.

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