Breaking the Silence: Law enforcement's tactics change when mental health gets involved

Justin Daniel Lopez pumps a shotgun on the dashcam video belonging to Central Point Police Officer Derek Brown. (Courtesy: Central Point Police)

According to the Jackson County District Attorney's Office, Justin Lopez yelled "just kill me" at Central Point Police as he pumped a shotgun and approached Officer Derek Brown.

Brown fired his weapon, injuring Lopez. A Grand Jury found the actions justified although Lopez's gun was not loaded.

[The story embedded below is from March 2017 after a Grand Jury determined Officer Derek Brown's actions were justified a few weeks after Brown shot Justin Daniel Lopez.]

"Safety of the situation for everyone involved is going to be the key thing and the first thing that we're thinking about," Deputy Noah Strohmeyer said in reference to handling calls that involve mental health.

Jackson, Josephine, Curry, Klamath and Lake County Sheriff's Offices do not have data on so-called 'suicide by cop' situations. However, some do keep data on the number of mental health calls and number of suicides that were not prevented.

Jackson County Sheriff's Office numbers of mental health holds have steadily gone down in recent years.

Josephine County Sheriff's Office keeps track of suicides and noted there were 11 suicide calls in 2017 and 9 suicide calls in 2018, but this does not include the number of suicides that were prevented, according to spokesperson Aurora Frost.

Curry County Sheriff's Office would not release hard numbers on mental health calls, but Sheriff John Ward noted they have been increasing the past four years.

Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber said his deputies respond "many times a month" to calls that include suicide concerns, including 'suicide by cop' terminology.

Lake County Sheriff's Office did not respond to request for comment.

"Of course I can't put myself in [a person suffering from a mental illness's] shoes, but having more perspective on that gives you one more tool, if you will, from the officer safety standpoint," Strohmeyer said of the training law enforcement goes through.

Deputies are trained within Jackson County Sheriff's Office to respond to calls with different mentalities depending on if mental health is in play - whether they find out on scene or before they arrive.

"We have to make sure we're not making the situation worse or more intense just by the way we arrive - that could be lack of siren or lack of flashing lights a lot of things like that can play into it from the very first second we arrive," Strohmeyer said.

To prepare, sheriff's deputies partner with Jackson County Health for training.

In a similar fashion, Grants Pass Department of Public Safety goes through 'Crisis Intervention Training' that involves a number of different mental health facets.

"If we have an understanding of their situation and we can recognize some clues and mental health disorders, then we can treat them in a different manner," Sgt. Josh Nieminen said.

According to Options for Southern Oregon, the trainings happen almost weekly and help different officers learn how to approach different mental health calls.

"It's their world that they're in. and just because we can't see it, doesn't mean they're not afraid and that they aren't experiencing a crisis at the time," Nieminen said. "It's very real to them."

Grants Pass Department of Public Safety partners with Options to respond to mental health calls that way first responders have a public safety background and a mental health background.

"They can effectively help someone who is in crisis and get our assistance out to that individual," Karla McCAfferty, Executive Director at Options for Southern Oregon, said.

This story is part of a statewide effort to bring awareness to mental health and suicide called Breaking the Silence. Part two of News 10's facet of this series will be published Friday and air at 6:00.

The Jackson County's mental health crisis line at 541-774-8201 is available 24 hours per day.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Or text 741741 to talk to a crisis counselor.

If a suicide seems imminent, another person is in danger or if suicide has been attempted, call 911.

EDITORS NOTE: News 10 and the Mail Tribune join newsrooms statewide in addressing the suicide crisis this week in the hope of saving lives. This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will be published on Friday. Mail Tribune published a three-part series earlier this week: Part 1 is called "Talk About It," Part 2 is called "Give Them Hope," and Part 3 is called "A Survivor's Story."

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