Recent incidents in the Rogue Valley have raised questions about how Oregon police are trained to handle sensitive situations. The incidents include the fatal shooting of Matthew Graves, a diagnosed schizophrenic who drew attention due to jaywalking, in Eagle Point and the wrongful arrest of a young African-American man in Ashland.
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said officers are trained to de-escalate stressful encounters as well as how to communicate with the disabled. But he said there’s never enough training.
“Whatever I say we do, I recognize that we don’t do enough,” he said. “There’s never enough training to deal with mental health issues, there’s never enough de-escalation training.
“As much as we try to train on dealing with people who have mental health issues, there’s always some unforeseen manifestation of mental health issues that we didn’t account for, that we didn’t predict,” O’Meara said. “Yes, we train, but we don’t train enough and we’re always looking for opportunities to bring new training to the department.”
O’Meara said the state requires a minimal training of 16 weeks at the police academy. From there, it’s up to the home agency whether to give additional training.
He said his recruits are given additional patrol training before they are allowed “to go solo.”
But he said that’s not the case for all agencies. He said when he first started as a police officer almost 27 years ago, in “small town, cornfield, Michigan,” he had almost no guidance right after the academy.
“That’s probably the only training (police academy) that some police officers get in smaller police departments, but I’m not familiar with a department that doesn’t have some sort of in-house training,” O’Meara said.
He said he was asked to be part of a work group to redefine state-wide police training curriculum because he has taught so much on implicit bias. Ethical policing and implicit bias training are now at the core foundation of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards Training.
“We’re seeing more and more that we are not as in control of our decision making as we’d like to believe. We’re seeing more and more that certain segments of our community are viewed and treated differently than other segments,” O’Meara said. “One example that is really glaring is that black people in America are criminalized more so than any other group is.
“If we start with the understanding that we have unconscious programming, then we’re in a better position to not let that impact our decision making, and it brings us a little bit closer to being fair and equitable to all members of the community.”
Last month an officer arrested an innocent 20-year-old African-American because he resembled the description of an offender in the area — a black male wearing a dark colored, hooded sweatshirt. The young man was wrongfully lodged in jail overnight because the officer failed to ascertain he was the subject. The officers could have viewed the surveillance video or asked witnesses if they had the right subject, but they did not.
“They had a right to stop him and detain him,” O’Meara said. “Where they failed and where the police department failed was that they did not substantiate that the man they had stopped was the same man involved in the original crime.”
O’Meara said APD is still investigating the mistake.
“After we identified how we failed, we’re going to come up with ways to ensure that we don’t fail in the same way. What discipline if any is appropriate for the officers will be determined in that investigation,” O’Meara said. “We’ll also need to look at what department-wide training is going to be appropriate to make sure that we don’t ever have another situation like this ever again.”
O’Meara said APD is always looking for better ways to ease communication barriers.
He said every police department in the state offers wallet cards and placards for the hearing impaired to place in their vehicles.
“Finding better ways to interact with people who have unusual communication needs is something we’re trying as a whole state law enforcement community to be better about,” O’Meara said.
APD officers go also get training on dealing with people who have autism.
He said this stemmed from a suggestion of the parents of two autistic adult males who both had negative interactions with police officers.
“The parents recognized that the police officers didn’t do anything wrong, they just hadn’t been trained on how to recognize signs of autism, so we attribute it to somebody being uncooperative or somebody being under the influence,” O’Meara said.
O’Meara said he couldn’t find any training program specifically dealing with that situation, so he engaged the Rogue Valley Council of Governments who created one for him.
“We’re trying to address mental health issues and abnormal manifestations as best that we can, but we can always do more,” O’Meara said.
“Sometimes if there’s a barrier of communication, it’s not that the officer needs to be more aggressive, it’s that they need to take a step back and try to figure out why the communication barrier is there recognizing that it’s not aggression, it’s a manifestation of a mental illness that they’re seeing,” O’Meara said.