Police Often Forced to Deal with People Suffering from Mental Illness

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Like all law enforcement across the country, Hermiston police officers deal with criminal activity every day. Often, however, the crimes are not committed by people simply behaving badly, but by people with a mental illness.

Lt. Randy Studebaker of the Hermiston Police Department reported on some recent cases involving folks with mental illnesses to highlight the problem in our area and the work being done by HPD.

An incident on July 9 stands out. It involved a 39-year-old male with a history of mental illness and substance abuse. According to Studebaker, the man got into an argument with family members, who told police the man held a gun to his own head and also threatened to kill his family. He later said he intended to commit suicide by cop.

Family members fled the home and the man shot his gun in their direction. No one was hurt, but a neighbor’s roof was damaged.

“To avoid escalating the situation, and knowing the male was alone in his home, officers kept the house under surveillance but did not immediately confront him,” wrote Studebaker on the HPD Facebook page.

Studebaker said a Hermiston Police crisis negotiator, after coordinating with the Interagency SWAT team and Lifeways, formulated a plan to peacefully take him into custody. During this time, the male was seen sitting on his porch dressed in a suit and tie, which he had not been wearing earlier. Family members believed he was dressed up to die.

Studebaker wrote that while scouting the area to form a tactical plan, Hermiston Police and Umatilla County Sheriff’s deputies drove past the house in an unmarked vehicle. Coincidentally, the male walked out into the street at that exact time.

“With the element of surprise in their favor, officers took the opportunity to jump out of their vehicle and grab the male before he could return to his house or access his firearms,” said Studebaker.

The subject was taken into custody without further incident and his firearms were seized. Both criminal and mental health cases are pending in the courts.

Another case, on July 16, involved a 53-year-old male with a history of mental illness allegedly pulled the screen off his neighbor’s window and screamed at the neighbor’s family, scaring their children. Studebaker said the neighbor did not wish to pursue charges, but merely wanted the police to ask the male to stay away. Officers advised the man and notified Lifeways.

The following day friends of the male’s elderly mother, who he lives with, said they hadn’t heard from her and asked officers to check on her welfare. Officers found the mother lying on the living room floor where she’d spent the previous night, unable to move. Studebaker said the woman told the officers she did not feel safe in her home because of her son. The officers called for an ambulance and while they were waiting, the male came out of his bedroom with no pants, and allegedly berated his mother for not yelling louder if she needed help. The mother was taken to the hospital and Lifeways placed a mental health hold on the male.

Yet another incident took place on Tuesday, July 17 when a 50-year-old male, also with a history of mental illness and substance abuse and who is well known to the Hermiston Police Department, was seen behaving erratically in the roadway and obstructing traffic. Studebaker said that at one point he began banging on the hood of a car that was stopped for a traffic light. Officers located the male a short distance away and took him into custody without incident for disorderly conduct. He was lodged in jail and mental health was notified.

Studebaker said these cases highlight the strain put on law enforcement and said more needs to be done to help people with mental illness so police do not have to get involved.

“Law enforcement and mental health resources are very limited across the nation, and our area is no exception,” he said. Studebaker said agencies like Lifeways have taken steps to improve both the quality and availability of their services, as well as their coordination with law enforcement and other community partners.

“While we look forward to more improvements in this continually-evolving relationship, there are few short term solutions,” Studebaker said. “The police and jails are often the only immediate option to deal with a situation when mental health intervention is what’s really needed.”