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Portland unarmed emergency response team now citywide

The unarmed emergency response program may curb wait times for non-emergency 911 calls in Oregon's largest city, which currently top 30 minutes.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Portland has a problem. Police here have a pattern of using excessive force against people in mental health crisis, and people are reluctant to call 911 out of the fear that police might respond, according to a recent evaluation. Now, there’s another option.

Beginning Monday, people across the city have access to emergency help from a team of social workers and paramedics. Portland Street Response, an innovative unarmed emergency responder program, will now operate citywide. A pilot version of the program has operated successfully for one year in a small section of outer Southeast Portland roughly five square miles in size. Monday’s expansion means three vans of unarmed emergency responders are now answering crisis calls across the city between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. The program now has 20 full-time employees.

Portland Street Response is designed to respond to emergencies that aren’t life-threatening and where no crime has been committed. These calls often go unanswered by police themselves, who claim low levels of staffing mean they can’t get to every call that comes through the city’s overburdened emergency line.

Callers to Portland’s troubled 911 line face abysmally long hold times. The current wait time for non-emergency calls in Portland is 30 minutes or more, according to Bob Cozzie, director of the Bureau of Emergency Communications. Cozzie described the bureau’s weekly meetings to go over the latest report showing call volume.

“It seems like each week when we get that report, calls are higher than they were last year (for that week),” Cozzie said Monday.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who championed city funding for the program, said Monday that part of the problem is that people use 911 for situations that are not emergencies. She said a planned public education campaign about the types of situations that warrant a 911 call.  

“If somebody is sleeping in a tent across from your house, that is not a reason to call 911,” Hardesty said.

Police leaders say publicly that they are supportive of the program, and appreciate that Portland Street Response frees up police to focus on more serious calls.

“Having Portland Street Response go citywide and be able to take more calls will free up officers to do their important work and still take the calls that rise to the officer level,” Portland Police Bureau Chief Chuck Lovell said Monday. “For us, when you bring this new capacity to the public safety system in the city and it’s going to help Portlanders get the services they need, that’s a good thing.”

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 the police union has so far refused to modify its collective bargaining agreement to allow Portland Street Response to handle calls that come from people who are indoors and those involving suicide. Portland Street Response is not specifically geared toward addressing homelessness, but because of restrictions imposed by the city’s police union, unhoused people are the de facto clientele.

Program leaders hoped that the police union would agree to allow Portland Street Response to respond to calls inside homes and businesses and those involving suicide as the program expanded citywide. Instead, the latest police union agreement with the city, released in February, specified only that police union jobs wouldn’t be reduced because of the program’s expansion.

The union agreement also called for a committee to discuss expanding the types and volume of calls Portland Street Response can answer. The committee, made up of police, Portland Street Response staff and members of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, which runs Portland’s 911 line, will meet for the first time next week, according to Robyn Burek, program manager for Portland Street Response.

Lovell said Monday that one of the main points of discussion is determining when police should accompany Portland Street Response on calls. The agreement calls for the committee to come up with a set of recommendations and present them to the directors of their city bureaus by June 30.

In the meantime, Portlanders are clamoring for more access to the program. Portland Street Response began operating downtown two weeks ago to train for the citywide expansion. Already, Burek said, call volume has risen for the program’s services, as people learn that the team is available in their neighborhood. Burek said she hopes to get more than three vans going at once, so that people in emergencies aren’t kept waiting for help.

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