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Social workers to be first responders to mental health crises

PORTLAND, Ore. - Starting next year people who call 911 about mental health issues may be put on the phone with a social worker instead of having a police officer show up at their door.

Portland police Chief Mike Reese said sending a police officer into a situation like that can be enough to set someone off, especially if they're in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Police hope the calls can be handled by mental health professionals like Mark Cameron, who answers the phone at the Multnomah County mental health crisis line. He speaks with people who are suicidal or having breakdowns.

"This is our realm, so to speak," Cameron said. "This is our specialty."

That is precisely why Portland police hope it will be how more mental health calls will be handled.

"In the past the default setting was well, we've got a blue suit out there, somebody from the police bureau that can respond. And we've really looked at it with our partners and said that may not be the best thing that we can do for these folks," said Reese.

In fact, he said having an armed, uniformed officer show up can make matters worse. Just in the last two years, there have been eight police shootings involving people who are mentally ill.

Reese said officers will still respond to calls when someone's armed and threatening to hurt others.

But for someone who is suicidal and isolated "we think we're better serving that community if we can get them into contact with professionals," he said.

"The more we free them (the police) up to be able to go respond to crime and other public safety issues, the more that they're able to actually be effective," said Heeseung Kang, Multnomah County's call center supervisor.

Cameron said it's been difficult to watch so many encounters between officers and the mentally ill turn violent. He hopes this new strategy will change lives and maybe save some too.

"When there is a mental health crisis, to get a mental health professional right there providing the direct-point intervention is the best, because that's what they're trained to do," he said.

They are also trained to listen for any sign that police should be called in, and they have a mobile crisis team called Project Respond that physically goes out to meet up with people who are in crisis.

They have two 2-person teams by day and one 2-person team at night.

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