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Police union agreement leaves questions about Portland Street Response program

The Portland Police Association agreement specified the city can't cut police jobs because of a program that provides unarmed emergency response to people in crisis.

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.”

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Any delay, Schmautz said, was about safety.

“We were concerned for the safety of the responders and also wanted to ensure that they had all the resources that they needed,” Schmautz said. “As far as how that drove the delay, I think that there was a myriad of factors.”

Jason Renaud, managing director for the Mental Health Association of Portland, said there’s room for both police and Portland Street Response.

“What we need to tell police over and over again is this is not replacing police,” Renaud said. “This is an add on. We’re not sending Portland Street Response into situations the police are specially trained for. This is a partnership. Not a takeover.”

For some, the new union agreement highlights a difference between what the union says its public safety concerns are and the agreement's actual focus: job security and generous retention bonuses.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate that the PPA has held Portland Street Response hostage, in a way, by making it a bargaining issue,” said Juan Chavez, a civil rights attorney who represents amici including the Mental Health Alliance in the case that resulted in a federal consent decree over violent policing in Portland. “It shows how much weight the union has.”

“Cities like Eugene have shown that non-gun-toting state actors are really what the community needs to stay safe,” Chavez added. “That’s the power of the PPA: you get to throw up your hands and say it’s all about public safety."  

Alternative response programs have sprung up around the country in the last couple of years, with new or planned programs in Austin, Atlanta, Chicago and Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland and Albuquerque and Toronto — the list goes on.

Like Portland Street Response, many are inspired by the CAHOOTS program, which has run for since 1989 in Eugene, Oregon. And many of those new programs may be bolstered by the CAHOOTS Act, which last year set aside $1 billion to help states plan and set up alternative emergency response programs.

In Portland, the benefits go beyond emergency response. By continuing to build relationships with people it initially contacts responding to 911 calls, Portland Street Response has helped people avoid eviction, find jobs and apply for social security benefits, explained Burek.

“When we go, we go not to necessarily go in and out as quickly as possible, but to meet the person where they’re at and spend as much time as we need to alleviate the crisis they’re in,” Burek said. “What one person might deem a crisis another person might not. We take our time, which is different from police and fire, where they are responding to true emergencies where a crime is being committed.”

One man wanted help finding a safe place to park the car he lives in and a laptop so he could deliver food through GrubHub. Initially, he was wary of discussing more with Heather Middleton, a community health worker with Portland Street Response. But those early wins helped them connect.

“It’s a young gentleman who has been pretty guarded in their life,” Middleton said. “But now, because of our relationship, he’s working on getting housing.”

Those follow up services are exactly what make programs like Portland Street Response valuable, according to David Harris, president and CEO of Urban Strategies Council, which helped the cities of Oakland and Antioch, California, design their alternative response programs.

“The strength of an alternative response program is its ability to make referrals for follow up support to address the underlying issue that caused the problem in the first place,” Harris said in a conference organized in February by the Mental Health Alliance. “The 911 call is intended to be an immediate resolution response for the safety of the community. But that doesn’t mean the underlying issue that caused a man to be standing in the middle of the street screaming and taking his clothes off is resolved by the 911 call. In fact, if the 911 response leads to individuals being incarcerated or being involuntarily committed for mental health care, those are negative outcomes.”

Schmautz, the union president, said the city has a definite need for a program like Portland Street Response.

“There are so many calls that we respond to where the police just flat out aren’t able to provide an outcome that resolves the problem because the person themselves may not be engaged in conduct that we have the legal authority to address,” Schmautz said.

The program is designed to operate independently of police, in part because people in crisis might be scared of police. A six-month evaluation of the program by the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University recommended maintaining that separation and minimizing the number of calls where police and Portland Street Response go together to calls.

“As the pilot continues, we will have a better sense for what a formal relationship between PSR, [Portland Police Bureau], and [Portland Fire & Rescue] should look like and be better able to correctly identify the types of calls that require a collaborative response,” the report states. “With this said, it is also important for PSR to retain its focus on reducing the presence of police and firefighters on behavioral health and non-emergency calls, and co-response should only be used when absolutely necessary.”

Schmautz said it was important for police to play a role in making those determinations.

“It may be that it’s appropriate for the police to show up with Street Response,” Schmautz said. “I’m not saying that the police must be at every call. I’m just saying that the conversation — we want to make sure that we’re involved in that.”

Schmautz suggested that expanding Portland Street Response could allow police to refocus their priorities. He reiterated the idea that Portland Police Bureau is too small and has called for roughly doubling its force by adding 800 additional officers.

“The Portland Police Association is thrilled to work with a growing public safety infrastructure because the needs of the community are outside of what the police bureau can provide and really probably should provide because the overt criminal or public safety needs — we need a bunch more police officers just to provide that,” Schmautz said.

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