Multnomah County Board hears updates on progress of public transit behavioral health crisis response team

January 20, 2022

Photo courtesy TriMet, shows a Max train in downtown Portland.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners heard important updates, Tuesday, Jan. 18, on the progress and partnership of a pilot, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), Health Department and TriMet transit behavioral health crisis response team. 

The concept behind a transit crisis response team, headed by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), has been several years in the making. Initial discussions between MCSO and TriMet launched in 2019 to forge a different response to public safety and behavioral health concerns on public transit. 

In spring 2021, the Board of County Commissioners approved an intergovernmental agreement between TriMet and Multnomah County that laid the groundwork for a new TriMet behavioral health mobile crisis response developed by Multnomah County Health Department, the Sheriff’s Office and TriMet. 

As part of that budget approval process, Commissioner Lori Stegmann requested a “budget note” briefing to hear updates about progress-to-date on the implementation plan, partnerships, the scope of the work and timelines.  

Today, “Collectively, we are investing in people, transportation and community and pushing models in public safety practices, training and learning unlike ever before,” said Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey-O’Donnell, who opened Tuesday’s briefing.   

“It is our mission to support all community members through exemplary public safety service and to create a safe and thriving community for everyone.” 

Multnomah County’s Health Department has been critical to the work so far, offering its expertise in behavioral health and social services to help shape the crisis response team.

From left: Leah Drebin, Public Health/Behavioral Health Reimagine Community Coordinator and Multnomah County Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey-O’Donnell.

“We are excited to be partnering across systems to work in innovative ways to bridge gaps for individuals experiencing behavioral health challenges in our community,’’ said Health Department director Ebony Sloan Clarke, who also addressed the board.   

The work of coordinating and developing transit-based behavioral health crisis programs depends largely on a senior program specialist, whose position was developed by the Health Department through TriMet’s Reimagining Public Safety and Security on Transit. That specialist, who works out of the Health Department Director’s Office, was hired in December 2021 and has already begun engaging stakeholders across departments and systems. 

“We also understand this unique opportunity is a way for us to continue to keep equity at the forefront of what we do because we recognize the issues disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous and other communities of color,” said Clarke.

Clarke cited successes through similar collaborations, including TriMet’s and the Health Department Behavioral Health Division’s work to leverage case management services in the County’s Diversion Court program

“Connecting individuals who are more frequently involved in security concerns on transit to one of our staff helps mitigate the impact of security events that this individual and others would have been impacted by,” said Clarke. 

But this process is iterative, she stressed. “There will be continual opportunities for feedback along the way… This is a new role and adjustments will be made along the way.”

Leah Drebin/Public Health, Behavioral Health Reimagine Community Coordinator  

Leah Drebin, the new Reimagine Community Coordinator hired by Multnomah County at the end of 2021, shared a timeline of the TriMet crisis response team pilot program that she has been charged with getting off the ground:

  • Crisis team intervention model outreach will be completed by the end of Fiscal Year 2022. Further milestones within that timeframe include: 
    • Observation and analysis of mental health and de-escalation training that TriMet safety and security teams are currently receiving;
    • Completion of stakeholder mapping;  
    • Coordination of data-tracking systems to track and analyze mental health related incidents that TriMet and Transit police respond to.  
  • Pieces of the crisis intervention pilot model will be implemented by the end of Fiscal Year 2023;
  • Full launch of the program by the end of Fiscal Year 2024.

For Drebin, her new role is an opportunity to make an impact in the Portland community where she was born and raised. 

“I come from a family impacted by addiction,” she shared with the Board. Drebin left home and school early in the middle of her junior year, “which ultimately sent me on a life-course trajectory to be here with you all today in this work.” 

Her journey included multiple stops, including stints in the hip-hop radio industry and then as a police officer, and at the center of those stops was her passion for sociology and cultural anthropology.

More recently, Drebin found opportunities to live and work in Hawaii, “It was there that I was exposed to the broken criminal justice system and how police officers are used for social and public health issues without adequate training or support systems in place to be effective,” she said.

She went back to school and earned a master’s degree in Sociology. She became a remote instructor certified by FEMA, working with the Oahu community, schools and local businesses, and city, county and federal agencies on emergency management structures. She also taught criminal justice courses on systemic issues and innovative strategies for change.

After having her son, Drebin said, “I moved back to Oregon and took part in different training and community advisory groups centered on equity, policing and behavioral health crisis response.”

Now, she’s coordinating efforts between the Health Department, TriMet and MCSO to set up a behavioral health response team.  

“I want to assure you that again — as someone who comes from a family impacted by addiction and as a member of the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak whose mother works for Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest (NARA) and a step-father who’s a peer support and drug addiction medicine specialist — that I will continue engaging those impacted by this work and elevate the voices of those who have traditionally been left out of the decision-making process.”  

Rebecca Sanchez, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Equity and Inclusion manager 

Rebecca Sanchez, Equity and Inclusion manager for the Sheriff’s Office, described training as a pillar of accountability for MCSO.  

As they worked through the mechanics of creating and filling the Reimagine Community Coordinator position, she said, “we recognized there were opportunities for shared professional development between MCSO and TriMet.”    

Today, many trainings bring multiple entities together, with MCSO supporting TriMet in mental health first aid, crisis intervention and advanced crisis intervention training. 

“To date, approximately half of all transit police officers have received advanced crisis intervention training,” said Sanchez. 

But, she added, “We must continue and further push ourselves to re-evaluate our past and current training practices through an equity and empowerment lens, and develop new and innovative training methods which align with community calls for racial and social justice.” 

In the fall of 2020, a group of law enforcement command members went through a process to better prepare for and engage in facilitating community listening sessions. We leaned heavily on these guiding questions, said Sanchez, “How will we approach this training opportunity differently, and are we prepared to do it differently?” 

From January through March 2021, MCSO began a community engagement learning experience pilot: a cohort of 15 different law enforcement deputies, sergeants, lieutenants and a lead captain, all led by Sanchez. 

“We challenged the one-and-done training practices [of the past] by establishing a 12-week training plan, structured to follow a scaffolded learning approach with concepts building upon each other, each week setting a culture of continuous learning.”

The work also involved: 

  • leveraging community expertise through content co-creation and co-facilitation with various subject-matter experts from a diversity of communities;
  • establishing a one-hour debrief space following each weekly training; 
  • setting community meeting agreements and participation expectations that included self-guided learning materials outside designated training times, such as articles and videos. 

“Command team leaders verbally supported both the framework and information from the start and modeled vulnerability and curiosity,” said Sanchez. 

“The framework of this learning model is in alignment with the training recommendations and goals of the Reimagining Public Safety and Security on Transit work project and MCSO’s strategic plan.”

The framework will also guide the development of a new approach for training for transit police and TriMet public safety command staff, she added. 

The co-development of the training themes and content will utilize an equity lens, said Sanchez, “emphasizing cultural humility within community engagement, along with opportunities to apply information through practice and reflection.” 

Marissa Clarke, TriMet safety and security community engagement coordinator  

These trainings fulfill goals set by TriMet’s Reimagining Safety and Security initiative, which spans five focus areas: training, technology, communication, infrastructure and system presence, said Marissa Clarke, TriMet safety and security community engagement coordinator.  

The Reimagine Public Safety Advisory Committee — a 17-member group composed of residents from across Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties — has been meeting monthly since October 2021. The committee is currently developing a request for proposals to solicit increased diversity, equity and inclusion training for the transportation agency, which will launch in late January.    

Last September, TriMet launched the safety response team, a 20-member team with diverse backgrounds with a mix of formal education and lived experience to provide support to all riders on the system, Sanchez added. 

“They’re a friendly face that provides resource navigation alongside basic supplies, including bottled water, basic first aid supplies, rain ponchos, granola bars, and resource referral,” said Clarke. 

By the end of the calendar year, the team had made over 3,900 contacts with riders. 

The work to improve overall experiences on public transit has also evolved to include monthly meetings that bring together more than a dozen transportation agencies from San Diego, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and beyond to address the challenges on public transportation.

“Although no two agencies are the same, we each have unique factors that have created current challenges. We are all facing similar situations regarding homelessness and mental-behavioral health challenges impacting transit operations,” Clarke said.

“Through Leah’s position, we will be better connected to crisis care across the tri-county area.  

The group is also supported by professors from Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) who are developing guides for public transportation agencies on effective approaches to those experiencing homelessness. 

“There is no copy-paste approach that will work perfectly for us, but we are learning and sharing our ideas with partners that are at various stages of similar programs,” Clarke ended.

Undersheriff Morrisey-O’Donnell ended the presentation by sharing an example of someone who was connected to services through the new safety response team.   

In November, a Hillsboro Police sergeant contacted an individual setting up a tent on a transit platform, she said. 

After engaging the person in a conversation, he recognized that connecting the person with housing resources was absolutely critical and requested the safety response team to come and assist. 

The members of the response team quickly found ways to connect with the individual, built trust and offered help immediately. They helped him collect his belongings and accompanied him, by train, to a walk-in resource center.

“This interaction shows the possibilities of meaningful collaboration,'' said Morrisey-O’Donnell. 

“I asked for this budget note, so I really appreciate you coming,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann. “Leah, I’m so excited you have a public safety background. That is exactly the cross-training and departmental perspective that we need.” 

Commissioner Sharon Meieran and Commissioner Susheela Jayapal also commended the effort and the collaboration with Commissioner Jayapal inquiring about the time frame and other milestones the project will achieve.  

Recognizing the impacts of the pandemic, stakeholder engagement and that this work is also being supported by the Health Department, replied Clarke,” We hope it will be up and running before the end of FY 2023, with the clear expectation it will be up and running in 2024.” 

“I’m hopeful at our next update to have a more hardened timeline and more projected milestones along the way,” said Drebin. 

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson applauded the training efforts and the continuous learning among public safety officers. 

“Just hearing what the safety response team has done in the 3 months, with 3900 contacts with riders and has been really engaging in the work, that’s really fantastic,” said Vega Pederson. 

“I’m really grateful for the intentionality of bringing together behavioral health, law enforcement and the community which has strong opinions about what this is going to look like,’’ ended Chair Deborah Kafoury.  

Watch the full board meeting here