Portland police still can’t measure effectiveness of response to mental health calls, consultants say

September 15, 2017 | By Maxine Bernstein

Portland police still lack the ability to track whether officers are using less force against people with mental health issues three years into a federal settlement that was supposed to improve their response, outside consultants say.

“We do not believe the PPB has the data systems in place to adequately measure the effectiveness of their unique system,” the Chicago-based consultants wrote in a report recently filed in federal court.

The city-hired consultants, Rosenbaum & Associates, tried to evaluate the bureau’s Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team of officers who receive more than 40 hours of training to handle mental health crises. They work regular patrol, are scattered among the bureau’s three precincts and go to mental health-related emergency calls if they’re available.

A U.S. Justice Department investigation found in 2012 that Portland police used excessive force against people with mental illness. The negotiated settlement with the city, approved by a federal judge in 2014, calls for changes to Portland policies, training and oversight.

The agreement recommended a different method of crisis response modeled after a strategy Memphis police started that has a team of trained officers respond to mental health crisis calls as their full-time role. The team reports to one high-ranking supervisor.

“PPB continues to operate with a modified Memphis model but has yet to produce data to demonstrate its effectiveness and responsiveness to the Portland community,” the report said.

The consultants say they suggested that the Police Bureau track frequency of mental health calls, adequacy and availability of the specially trained officers by precinct and shift, outcomes of the calls and differences in outcomes when enhanced crisis intervention officer can’t respond.

The bureau had been using a special screen that pops up on an officer’s mobile computer to fill out information on all interactions with people who exhibit mental illness. But police halted the practice after the District Attorney’s Office advised them that the information must be shared with defense lawyers if the people faced criminal prosecution.

To address the district attorney’s concerns, the bureau switched to a different type of screen that an officer completes only if the call requires a written police report, to make the information more accessible for sharing with the defense at prosecution.

But that means the information no longer reflects all police contacts with people suffering from mental illness, consultants Dennis Rosenbaum and Amy Watson found.

Data the consultants reviewed from March 2016 through Jan. 31 showed that 10 percent, or 18,748, of Portland police calls had some type of mental health element involved. Of those, 6.3 percent, or 1,179, were considered of a type that should draw an enhanced crisis intervention officer. Of those 6.3 percent of calls, the officers with the extra training responded nearly 70 percent of the time.

The consultants asked the city Bureau of Emergency Communications, which dispatches police to 911 calls, for more detailed information on mental health calls, but the bureau said it didn’t have the staff to perform such data extraction or analysis. The consultants said the Police Bureau also has access to the information, but it also said it didn’t have the staff to provide a data review.

“This significantly limits (both bureaus’) capacity to analyze trends and assess the adequacy of their mental health response system,” the consultants said.

Mary Claire Buckley, principal management analyst who works on the Police Bureau’s Department of Justice compliance team, said the bureau is working to compare the outcomes of responses to mental health calls by enhanced crisis intervention officers versus other officers. She said she anticipates that analysis may be available next month.

Justice Department lawyers also noted in a report this summer, “Our team has repeatedly heard from officers, on ride-alongs and in the (enhanced crisis) training, that they are frustrated by repeated contacts with known individuals … who they take to the hospital only to be released, over and over without any answers from PPB about what they should do.”

The consultants also found that the bureau has failed to embrace computer tracking to identify at-risk officers or patterns of problems that would allow for early intervention, as required under the federal agreement.

The consultants said police supervisors who oversee the system have resisted their recommendations “time and again.”

Police supervisors have told the consultants that the system’s setup meets the settlement’s requirements. It does track supervisors’ performance reviews of officers under their command, and the rate that the officers use force as a ratio of their arrests and compared to that of other officers on their shifts.

The Justice Department expects more, the consultants said.

“We have seen little in the way of meaningful progress during this review period. … After two years, we believe more progress should have been made and urge PPB to make substantive changes,” the consultants wrote in their quarterly report, covering July through December 2016.

The Police Bureau says the Employee Information System is intended to allow a “comprehensive review” of an officer’s performance on the job, benefit the bureau and officers by “facilitating professional growth” through feedback from supervisors — but may not be used to make decisions about discipline, transfers or promotions.

The consultants said they’d like to see the tool used to ” help save officers’ careers and encourage good policing in general.”

The system flags officers in the computer database if they have used force in 20 percent of their arrests in the prior six months, if they have used force three times more than the average number compared with other officers on the same shift, if they receive two or more complaints with similar allegations or if they have received three or more complaints within the prior six months.

The consultants said the system should track much more information over a longer period, including complaints against officers, their total number of responses to 911 calls, their use of force overall and compared to force used by officers by shift and precinct, ratio of force to arrests and ratio of force used to suspect injuries and officers injuries.

They also recommended that the system track the type of complaints, sustained complaints, ratio of complaints to interactions on the job, tendency to engage in car or foot chases after suspects, their use of sick leave, how frequently they charge a suspect with resisting arrest and how that compares to officers by shift and precinct.

About 90 percent of the flags that arose from the current system aren’t forwarded to an officer’s direct supervisor, but reviewed by the system administrator, the report said.

Seattle police, in contrast, require a direct supervisor review to determine if an intervention, such as mentoring, is warranted.The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office has a performance review committee of three commanders that makes such decisions.

“The adequacy of the current review process is unknown because of a lack of documentation, but on its face, does not appear sufficient in light of best practices,” the report said. “Also, a system of intervention has not been established to our knowledge which is the primary goal of (such) systems. As such, we see no evidence that officers who truly would benefit from supplemental instruction and guidance are receiving it.”

Buckley said the bureau has made changes to the system since the consultants completed their report. For example, more is being shared with officers’ direct supervisors when a flag is triggered in the system, and the supervisors are now required to document if they took any action, such as a debriefing, extra counseling or training, Buckley said.

The bureau has met the settlement requirements governing what the system tracks and what would trigger an alert about an officer, Buckley said.

“Certainly we’re going to be looking at improvements to the system. But we first want to comply with the settlement agreement before we’re able to add things,” she said. She added that the bureau’s resources are limited, noting there’s one sergeant who is in charge of the Employee Information System, and the programmer is based in Denver.

The consultants expect to release an updated report next month.

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