Disability Rights Oregon sues Washington County alleging it fails people in mental health crises

A one-year investigation found the county often sends police instead of mental health professionals to help people in crisis

By: - February 5, 2024 1:14 pm
mental health

Washington County often fails to meet the needs of people in a mental health crisis who call 911 for help, a federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges. (Getty Images)

Washington County routinely fails to meet the health needs of people in mental health emergencies by dispatching armed police officers instead of trained behavioral health teams to help people in crises, Disability Rights Oregon said in a lawsuit filed on Monday. 

That response has led to violence and bloodshed, the lawsuit found, including one instance involving a man who an officer stabbed in a hospital because police who responded failed to ask a behavioral health team to help him before sending him away in an ambulance. 

Disability Rights Oregon filed the lawsuit against the state’s second largest county after a year-long investigation with the ACLU of Oregon that analyzed emergency call data and the police response to people who seek help. The federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, alleges the county’s systemic response to people in a mental health crisis places them at a greater risk for harm and violates federal laws that require people with disabilities to receive equal access to programs and services without discrimination. 

“Everyone deserves access to health care during an emergency – that includes emergency mental health services during a crisis,” Jake Cornett, executive director and CEO of Disability Rights Oregon, said in a statement. “Police are neither trained nor appropriate responders for someone who has broken their leg and calls 911 – and the same holds for someone having a mental health emergency. Your ZIP code shouldn’t determine whether armed police or mental health providers show up when you call needing life-saving mental health care.”

Get help

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or need mental health help right now, call or text 988 or chat at www.988lifeline.org.

The lawsuit alleges the county’s system routes 911 calls for mental health assistance to police first, which means police are the primary agency that responds. The county has a contracted mental health crisis response team, but it’s unavailable at night, the lawsuit said, and usually only responds after hearing from police. As a result, police in Washington County are usually the first to arrive, even when no crime is involved, the lawsuit said.

Julie McCloud, a spokesperson for Washington County, said in a statement that the county has a behavioral health mobile crisis team that responds to behavioral health calls on its crisis line. In 2022, crisis clinicians responded to more than 2,100 calls received on the county’s crisis line, McCloud said in an email.

Another mental health response team program that pairs deputies with clinicians for calls has been successful and helped people avoid the criminal justice system, McCloud said. She said the county has been working with the ACLU and Disability Rights Oregon to address their concerns and is disappointed they filed a lawsuit.

Officers in Washington County respond to thousands of mental health calls every year. For a nearly three-year period from 2020 to 2022, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office handled about 12,000 calls, the lawsuit said. But in a two-year period, police only asked for the mobile crisis team to come on the scene for about 100 calls, the lawsuit said.

“When you’re a person in Washington County who calls because of a psychiatric crisis, you get a deputy or a cop,” Dave Boyer, managing attorney of DRO’s Mental Health Rights Project, said in an interview.  “We believe that that response warrants a mental health provider without a cop. What they’re doing is they’re sending cops and mental health providers typically or just cops. And we feel like the presence of that police officer is detrimental to that person’s mental health.”

The stories of people in crisis are central to the lawsuit. 

Mental health care requested, and police respond

In one account, a 27-year-old man called a suicide hotline in 2022 and was transferred to the county’s 911 dispatchers. The man was contemplating suicide for the second time in three months and specifically requested medical help – not a police response, the lawsuit alleges. Instead, the dispatcher sent five county deputies. 

Deputies arranged for an ambulance to transport him to a hospital, but he didn’t receive the psychiatric assessment and stabilization services that a mobile crisis response team would have provided, the lawsuit alleges. As a result, the man was still in crisis when he arrived at the hospital, and a nurse began checking his vitals in an unsecured exam room, the lawsuit said.

A deputy followed the ambulance to the hospital, the lawsuit said, and the man walked out of the exam room, approached the officer and attempted to take his firearm, repeatedly saying: “Let me kill myself.”

In response, the deputy stabbed the man several times to keep him from grabbing his gun, and injuries to his chest, stomach and head required a nearly three-week stay in the hospital, the lawsuit said. Due to the altercation, the man was charged and tried in Washington County mental health court and he received five years of probation in connection with the incident.

“By dispatching … deputies to (his) crisis instead of qualified mental health professionals, defendants denied (him) the opportunity to be clinically assessed and stabilized at his home,” the lawsuit said. “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 lawsuit also alleges police use unnecessary force while out on the calls. In one instance cited in the lawsuit, an officer pulled a woman to the ground who was trying to flee from police while in a mental health crisis. The officer placed his right knee on her lower back and hips and his left knee on her shoulder while another officer handcuffed the woman, the lawsuit alleged.

“Not only did she endure being thrown to the ground, arrested, and involuntarily hospitalized but she was also subjected to a highly dangerous restraint technique,” said the lawsuit, which cites police reports.

Other findings in lawsuit

The lawsuit says the county doesn’t fully fund, staff or integrate its existing mobile crisis teams – which have mental health workers rather than police – into its emergency responses.

The lawsuit also alleges the county’s system requires an armed police officer to respond to mental health calls before mobile crisis teams arrive, which can escalate the situation and traumatize the person who needs help.

This perpetuates a cycle for people: The person is not treated,  making them more likely to remain homeless and use illicit drugs to ease their suffering on the streets.

“Ultimately, this lawsuit aims to correct the misconception that people experiencing mental health crises are dangerous and require a law enforcement response,” Daniel Bartz, senior counsel of the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement. “People in crisis should receive the care that they need and deserve, rather than being treated as though they committed a crime.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order to require Washington County to improve how it responds to people with mental health disabilities and adequately fund and use its response teams, with a police response limited only to dire emergencies. If the lawsuit is successful, it will make non-police crisis response teams the primary way to help people with mental health needs, not law enforcement.

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys at Disability Rights Oregon, ACLU of Oregon, the ACLU, and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, an international law firm headquartered in Los Angeles. 

UPDATED: This story has been updated at 4:10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, 2024 with a statement from Washington County.

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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.

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