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Lawsuit claims Ore. county, dispatchers failed to send mental health response team to crisis calls first

Washington County suit states dispatchers sent law enforcement to crisis calls first before crisis workers

By Maxine Bernstein

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. — Washington County routinely fails to send trained clinicians to calls involving people in mental health crisis and instead sends sheriff’s deputies or police who tend to “exacerbate” the encounters, a lawsuit alleges.

Disability Rights Oregon and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon are suing the county and its emergency dispatch system, alleging they’re violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by not ensuring mental health professionals are the primary responders to behavioral health crises in non-violent situations.

The lawsuit argues that the federal act extends to a county’s emergency response 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 worker, the county’s 911 dispatch system routinely sends deputies or police to a scene before any mental health crisis workers are summoned, often leading to unnecessary use of force, arrest or hospitalization, according to the suit.

“As a result of the County and Agency’s policies and practices, people with mental health disabilities who experience a mental health crisis in the County frequently do not receive the urgent medical care they require and instead, face an array of adverse outcome,” the suit alleges.

The suit, filed in federal court Monday in Portland, seeks a court order that would require the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency to ensure that mental health professionals are the default first responders to mental health calls if there’s no access to weapons or a threat identified.

During one year from March 1, 2022, to Feb. 28, 2023, for example, the county sent armed officers as first responders to 100% of calls coded by emergency call takers as “Behavioral Health Incidents,” according to the suit. The same applied for calls coded as “welfare checks” — a code often used for mental-health-related calls — and for all calls coded as “suicide threat,” the suit says.

Washington County has been working with Disability Rights Oregon and the ACLU for the last two months “on ways to address their concerns” and avoid litigation, according to Julie McCloud, a county spokesperson.

The county is disappointed to learn of the lawsuit through the media, McCloud said.

“We’re committed to providing professional and compassionate mental health services to community members experiencing a mental health crisis,” McCloud said by email. “For more than two decades, we have worked diligently with our partners and stakeholders to develop a system of care to address these deep and complex needs.’'

The suit contends that the county’s emergency dispatch system doesn’t rout mental health-related calls to the county’s Mobile Crisis Team, which is made up of mental health clinicians from LifeWorks NW who conduct in-person crisis evaluations — sometimes with police or community partners — to help resolve psychiatric emergencies and avoid unnecessary hospitalization or emergency room visits.

While the Mobile Crisis Team is intended to be available 24 hours, seven days a week, the county has failed to sufficiently fund or staff the service, the suit said. “In practice this means that the only non-police crisis response option in the County is largely unavailable — and certainly not at scale and available 24/7 like physical health emergency response services,” the suit alleges.

The Mobile Crisis Team isn’t called often, the suit contends. In 2021 and 2022, law enforcement in Washington County called the Mobile Crisis Team to the scene of 106 calls, according to data from the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services.

Washington County disputed the suit’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 call taker if there are no signs of any threatening behavior or access to any weapons, McCloud said. In 2022, the non-police crisis team responded to more than 2,100 calls, according to McCloud.

The suit cites several examples of officers using force against people in crisis before any mental health professionals were summoned to assist.

One of the examples involves Joshua Wesley, who ended up in a Hillsboro hospital emergency room, where he attempted to grab a deputy’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 experiencing suicidal ideation for the second time in three months and was desperately seeking help from a mental health professional, according to the suit. He had purposely avoided calling 911 because he didn’t want a police response, the suit says.

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 cut himself recently, had knives in the house but didn’t have any on him and that he was suicidal. The crisis line call taker forwarded his call to an emergency dispatcher at the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency.

Despite Wesley’s request for a non-police response, the county dispatcher first coded the call as a “welfare check” at a Priority 2, meaning there appeared to be “an immediate threat,” and then changed the call description to a “suicide attempt,” and upgraded it to a Priority 1, suggesting an “imminent threat to life,” according to the suit.

Five sheriff’s deputies responded to the parking lot of Wesley’s apartment complex. The first deputy to respond noted in the sheriff’s dispatch system there were cautions that Wesley may have weapons, “resists arrest” and was “suicidal.” The deputy made a phone call to Wesley, who said he was feeling anxious, paranoid and wanted to kill himself, according to the suit.

The deputy asked Wesley to come outside and he did, though he had explained he was reluctant to with five deputies in the parking lot, the suit says. He complied with deputies’ instructions and was not aggressive, the suit says.

The deputy handcuffed Wesley and put him on a police officer 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 tried to check his vital signs, the suit says.

Midway through the check, Wesley walked out of the room and attempted to the grab the gun of the responding deputy, repeating, “Let me kill myself,” according to the suit. The two struggled, and the deputy repeatedly stabbed Wesley with a knife to prevent him from taking his gun. Wesley was stabbed in the chest, stomach and head and was hospitalized for three weeks before he was transferred to jail on criminal allegations.

He pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer and was sentenced in April to five years of probation and ordered to enter mental health court, according to court records.

“I joined this case because I strongly believe that mental health support should go to those who need it. So many things can go wrong when police are at the forefront of mental health crisis response,” Wesley said in a statement. “I hope my story helps others in crisis and can bring about positive change in how we respond to mental health emergencies, both in the county and nationwide.”

The county denied Wesley “the opportunity to be clinically assessed and stabilized at his home. Instead, they exacerbated his crisis and provided him with an emergency response service that is unequal to the service provided to people experiencing a physical health emergency in the County,” the suit alleges.

Deputies were also dispatched to other people who were reported to be aimlessly walking in traffic. Despite the deputies’ beliefs that those people were experiencing mental health crises, there were no calls to summon mental health responders to the scene, resulting in force and arrests, the suit states.

Early Feb. 6, 2021, for example, one woman wouldn’t get out of the street on Southwest Farmington Road in Beaverton. A deputy ultimately grabbed her arm and took her down to the ground when she pulled away, the suit says. A second deputy moved in to help handcuff her as she struggled. She was taken by ambulance to St. Vincent Hospital on a police hold, involuntarily hospitalized and faced three criminal allegations, including one felony. The suit didn’t identify the charges.

According to Washington County, the sheriff’s office began pairing specially trained deputies with mental health clinicians on its Mental Health Response Team to respond to behavioral health calls 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 now participate in the program as well,” she said.

Mental health crisis response teams provide first-responder service elsewhere in the country and in Oregon, such as Eugene’s CAHOOTS mobile van. The two-member CAHOOTS van in Eugene includes a medic and an experienced crisis worker who respond as an alternative to police to non-violent mental health calls.

In Portland, a city commissioner who oversees the fire bureau is considering budget cuts to Portland Street Response, a non-police invention team that sends mental health professionals and EMTs to aid people in crisis on the street. Portland Street Response doesn’t provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage currently.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit that serves people with mental health disabilities and their families, calls for mental health clinicians and peer support workers to be the first responders to mental health calls, not police, though law enforcement “may still play a role in some mental health crises,” according to the suit.

Jake Cornett, executive director and chief executive officer of Disability Rights Oregon, said everyone deserves access to emergency mental health services. “Your zip code shouldn’t determine whether armed police or mental health providers show up when you call needing life-saving mental healthcare,” he said in a statement.

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