I'm tempted to call this a cage fight between Vanessa Nordyke, Salem City Councilor, and Trevor Womack, Salem Police Chief, over the establishment of a civilian-run mobile crisis unit.
Oops. Looks like I gave in to that temptation. Nordyke looks sweet and gentle. But my advice to Womack is to throw in the towel now before you get thrashed by her.
A few days ago Nordyke announced in a Facebook post that she wants City of Salem staff to prepare a report on the feasibility of a mobile crisis unit.
Note the language: "civilian-led mobile crisis unit." Those are fighting words for Womack, who largely dismissed that notion in a December 27 Statesman Journal story about Womack's first year as police chief.
How do you see the Police Department approaching calls about community members in mental health crisis and individuals who are homeless?
I do think there is room on this continuum for a non-law enforcement response. I don't think it can come at the expense of law enforcement because there's also room for a national best practice, which already exists here: our Mobile Crisis Response Team, where we have a law enforcement officer partnered with a qualified mental health professional. We handle hundreds of calls this way successfully.
When we talk about removing law enforcement from the situation, that removes a critical component for safety. You never want to insert a non-sworn professional staff, like a mental health provider or a medic, into a situation where there may be somebody who is a physical threat.
Across all of that, also making sure that everybody is trained with the right skills and equipment abilities to do those roles effectively. So, crisis intervention training is one thing I'm proud of, too. We've been committed to providing additional CIT training to all of our officers.
What I am concerned about is, are there other gaps in the system? So let's say that the team existed right now and it consisted of a paramedic or a medic and a social worker. There wouldn't be a lot of calls that they would relieve from police because we already screen calls; we don't necessarily go to calls where that model would respond to because we don't have time to go to those calls, anyway.
Let's say they go and there's a person right out here that's obviously in crisis that needs some help. What are the resources I could connect them with? There are gaps in the system. Let's not create the cart before the horse. Let's make sure that if there is a team like that, that there are actually resources that they can use to improve the situation.
My answers to these questions are going to change over time as the gaps are filled. But what's optimistic is we did open some more hotel bed space. We have a navigation center the city is going to open. So we're starting to invest and fill in these gaps that are out there. And then maybe at that point, a non-law enforcement response makes more sense.
Jim Scheppke wrote a Facebook comment about what Womack said which points out that Womack is choosing to ignore a clear City Council priority -- which Nordyke is now calling him out on.
Another interesting wrinkle is that Trevor Womack has endorsed for re-election the incumbent Marion County District Attorney, Paige Clarkson, while Vanessa Nordyke applauded the effort of Spencer Todd, who is running against Clarkson, to form a mobile crisis unit.
Here's a link to the Statesman Journal opinion piece Nordyke referenced: "Look to CAHOOTS for inspiration for nonviolent emergencies."
My bet is that Nordyke will succeed with her motion at the January 10 City Council meeting, since a mobile crisis unit appears to have the support of a majority of councilors. Then it will be up to Chief Womack to decide whether to get on board the mobile crisis unit train.
I think he'd be wise to support that proposal, given that it seems to be gathering a full head of steam.