PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A successful new program that sends medical and mental health clinicians to emergency calls instead of police will enter its second year unable to respond to calls involving suicide and incidents inside residences, because of provisions in a draft agreement with a police union.
Over the past year, Portland Street Response provided unarmed emergency assistance to people in crisis. Next month, the program is set to expand to offer services across the city. Advocates and experts wanted that expansion to include the ability to respond to calls indoors and calls involving suicide.
“The hope would be that could be something that starts with citywide rollout. That was one of our strong recommendations,” Greg Townley said before the release of the union agreement. Townley is co-founder of Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University, which evaluated the program when it had been underway for six months.
Even attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice hammering out city compliance with a settlement after finding a police pattern of excessive force against people they perceive to be in a mental health crisis want the program used as a tool to reduce incidents of police violence.
But when and whether that will happen remains unclear.
A tentative agreement between the Portland Police Association and the city released on Tuesday makes one concrete change regarding the program: it specifies that the city can't cut police jobs because of Portland Street Response.
“The city agrees that it will not reduce PPA represented positions (whether filled or unfilled) as a result of the expansion of the PSR,” the draft agreement states.
What the agreement doesn’t do is immediately allow Portland Street Response to respond to two categories of emergency calls that are critical to its mission: crisis calls for incidents that happen inside residences and calls involving suicide. Instead, the agreement calls for a committee to suggest rules about what kinds of calls the program can respond to alone or alongside police. That will include police and Portland Street Response representatives, as well as members of the fire bureau and the Bureau of Emergency Communications, which runs the city’s 911 dispatch.
The committee will present its suggested rules to the police chief, fire chief and director of the Bureau of Emergency Communications in five months — well after the city-wide expansion of Portland Street Response. The draft contract still has to be approved by both police union members and the Portland City Council.
Portland Police Association president Aaron Schmautz said Wednesday that the union wasn’t behind the restrictions on the types of calls Portland Street Response can respond to.
“We did not say ‘cease and desist,’ or ‘you may not do this or that,’” Schmautz said in an interview. “We literally just said, ‘in order for this program to be successful, we would like to bargain how it’s going to work into the work product that our members are engaging in.’”
That differed from other accounts of the situation, as described by the program’s spokeswoman and its manager, Robyn Burek, and by a third person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Caryn Brooks, spokeswoman for Portland Street Response, said last month that the program's initial agreement with police included the types of calls the team could be dispatched to during its first year of operation. On Feb. 1, fifteen days before the official end of the one-year pilot program, that agreement reopened for discussion with the police union.
“With the union it’s an agreement, rather than an in-depth contract,” Brooks said.
“The union has a right to begin bargaining on Feb. 1, so we’ll see where that conversation goes,” Program Manager Robyn Burek said in January. “I feel optimistic about it, that we’ll be able to start going to calls indoors and responding to suicide calls, but all of that is still being discussed and negotiated.”