Lawsuit Challenges Law Enforcement Response to Mental Health Emergencies in Washington County, Oregon

Affiliate: ACLU of Oregon
February 5, 2024 3:00 pm

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. — Civil and disability rights organizations filed suit in federal court today on behalf of individual and organizational plaintiffs against Washington County, Oregon and the county’s 911 dispatch center, the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency, over their practice of dispatching armed law enforcement officers, rather than qualified mental health professionals, as first responders to mental health emergencies.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Oregon, Disability Rights Oregon, and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP represent Disability Rights Oregon and Joshua Wesley, a 28-year-old biracial man who called a crisis hotline for a mental health emergency in October 2022. Instead of sending trained clinicians to aid Mr. Wesley, as he specifically requested, the hotline transferred Mr. Wesley’s call to the local 911 dispatch center, which sent several armed deputies, needlessly escalating the situation.

“I joined this case because I strongly believe that mental health support should go to those who need it. So many things can go wrong when police are at the forefront of mental health crisis response,” said plaintiff Joshua Wesley. “I hope my story helps others in crisis and can bring about positive change in how we respond to mental health emergencies, both in the county and nationwide.”

The lawsuit alleges that Washington County and its 911 dispatch center discriminate against people with mental health disabilities by failing to provide them equal access to, and opportunity to benefit from, its emergency response system, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. When someone in Washington County, Oregon calls 911 for a physical health emergency, a dispatcher sends trained health professionals, such as paramedics or EMTs. But when someone in the county calls 911 seeking help for a potential mental or behavioral health issue for themselves or others, a dispatcher sends armed law enforcement officers.

“Responding deputies are not qualified mental health professionals capable of providing on-site psychiatric assessment, stabilization, and treatment to individuals in crisis. Their presence creates a substantial risk that they will exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the mental health crises they are intended to address,” the complaint reads.

“Across Washington County, people with disabilities face discrimination as a result of the county’s response to mental health emergencies. By dispatching armed law enforcement officers instead of qualified mental health professionals, people who experience a mental health crisis in the county do not receive the urgent medical care they require. The outcomes are predictable: people are frequently involuntarily hospitalized, arrested, and jailed, or even subjected to use of force by responding officers,” said Julian Clark, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Each person in Washington County, regardless of their disability status, deserves and is entitled to equal access to and opportunity to benefit from the county’s emergency response services and programs. With today’s filing, we continue the fight to make this truth a reality.”

Local and national experts, including the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and National Alliance on Mental Illness, have concluded that police should not serve as the default first responders for mental health crises, and accordingly recommend that communities invest in mental health providers to handle such emergencies.

“Everyone deserves access to healthcare during an emergency—that includes emergency mental health services during a crisis,” says Jake Cornett, executive director and CEO of Disability Rights Oregon. “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 healthcare.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the county and the 911 dispatch center to halt the current practice of dispatching law enforcement officers as the primary first responders to mental health crises, and ensure that mental health professionals are the default first responders for mental health emergencies that do not involve a threat to others.

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

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