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In Our View: Law enforcement complex, requires coordination

The Columbian
Published: April 3, 2024, 6:03am

A pair of seemingly disconnected news items this week actually are closely related. Their common ancestry can be found in a movement early this decade to rethink police work and criminal justice in an effort to make law enforcement more responsive to the needs of the public.

In one item, The Columbian reports that the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is working with mental health providers who provide assistance when needed. In the other, the governor of Oregon has signed a bill recriminalizing the possession of drugs.

Both have their genesis in the “defund the police” movement of 2020. The phrase itself was a misnomer; most advocates were interested in emphasizing treatment for people who run afoul of the law rather than eliminating police departments. It also was a politically foolish mantra, guaranteed to be rejected by a majority of the public.

In the wake of the rhetorical dustup, however, Clark County’s Co-Responder Program has followed the lead of the Vancouver Police Department and embraced the best parts of the idea. The sheriff’s office is partnering with Sea Mar’s mental health providers and seeking assistance when deputies encounter a community member who could benefit from treatment services, housing assistance or counseling.

Vancouver police have employed a similar program the past four years, and Columbian reporters Becca Robbins and Mia Ryder-Marks explain, “The providers offer their expertise, while deputies ensure everyone stays safe and can take action if someone is violating the law.”

As Sea Mar’s Laura Nichols said, “We want to ensure that when someone is having a psychotic episode, mental health crisis, feeling suicidal or extremely alone, that they know that someone cares.”

Throughout the country, police officers too often are expected to be treatment counselors, mental health experts and social workers — as if the job of keeping the peace and de-escalating situations were not difficult enough. They are expected to perform tasks that are beyond the purview of their training and that take time away from the job of preventing crime.

“There’s a good percentage of our calls for service that there is an underlying behavioral health — whether it’s mental health or houselessness or substance abuse issues,” Sgt. Fred Neiman said. “So we really see this like an opportunity to have some interventions that are more than just criminal interventions.”

While the partnership with Sea Mar is in its infancy and will warrant scrutiny, it can help protect the public and help deputies more effectively perform their duties. It also can stand in contrast with an Oregon effort to rethink policing.

There, statewide voters in 2020 opted to decriminalize drug possession by passing Measure 110 with 58 percent of the vote. The idea was to direct users toward counseling rather than incarceration, but the state was derelict in bolstering treatment services. With a lack of services available, the results of the law were predictable — public use of drugs, increased addiction and concerns about rising crime.

The Oregon Legislature voted to roll back Measure 110. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed the bill this week and wrote, “Success … hinges on the ability of implementing partners to commit to deep coordination at all levels.”

While the issues are disparate, that comment reflects a common thread in rethinking police work. Law enforcement is complex, because many different needs must be served, and coordination is necessary for these to be met well and efficiently.