Officer's new role could help lower Lake Oswego's suicide rate
Since September, Lake Oswego Police Officer Dawn Pecoraro has been transitioning into a new role — one that she and the department hope will help curb the unusually high number of deaths by suicide and suicide attempts that take place in Lake Oswego.
A 15-year veteran of the LOPD, Pecoraro's new role as the Adult Resource Officer is the first of its kind in Oregon. It allows her to operate more casually than the typical police officer, with the goal of filling in the gaps and connecting resources to the people in Lake Oswego who need them most.
"I'm not a mental health professional, but I have a different lens through which I operate, so I try and take a look at the family dynamic and assess whether they'd benefit from a follow-up call," Pecoraro says. "It may not be the people we think. It could be the spouse, the adult children, whoever is most appropriate."
The position was suggested by LOPD Lt. Clayton Simon and received widespread approval within the department.
"I think it was meant to be," Pecoraro told The Review. "The position wasn't created for me, but it's so in line with what I'm doing. It's exciting to be the frontrunner and set that precedent."
Pecoraro says her role is constantly evolving, but she's identified four areas of focus in which she believes she can make an impact and improve the lives of Lake Oswegans. Those include elderly adult services, behavioral health, domestic violence and substance abuse.
With Lake Oswego having one of the largest populations of elderly adults in the state, Pecoraro has made it a priority to focus on connecting the elderly to programming and services at the Adult Community Center, Clackamas County Aging & Disability Resource Connection and Clackamas County Adult Protective Services, among others.
Behavioral health, particularly as it relates to suicide prevention and awareness, is also an area of focus for Pecoraro — and for the LOPD as a whole. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death across the nation, but in Oregon — and particularly in Clackamas County— mental health services and law enforcement are seeing a disproportionate number of cases.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon's suicide rate of 17.7 per 100,000 residents is 33 percent higher than the national average. Clackamas County has the highest suicide rate in the metro region at 15.6 per 100,000 residents. There are more than 650 suicides in Oregon each year and more than 2,100 hospitalizations due to suicide attempts.
As a Clackamas County community, Lake Oswego disproportionately adds to that rate. In October, there were four deaths by suicide in Lake Oswego, according to the LOPD. Between January and the end of October 2018, there were 24 suicide attempts.
It's a troubling trend that City leaders like Police Chief Dale Jorgensen and Megan Phelan, the City's assistant city manager and human resources director, are working to get ahead of.
In October, members of the LOPD's management team attended a two-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) course put on by the Clackamas County Behavioral Health Division. In January, two more groups of LOPD officers — including Pecoraro — completed the ASIST course; another group will take the course in March.
"It was an eye-opening experience, and it definitely gave me a different perspective," Pecoraro says.
LOPD Capt. Scott Thran, who has also completed the county's ASIST course, echoed Pecoraro's comments. He believes the training has been and continues to be invaluable to the LOPD from a community policing standpoint because it allows officers to better understand the nuances of suicide prevention.
"What we've seen historically is that it is a taboo subject. It's not something that society has generally been comfortable talking about," Thran says. "This training and this conversation is breaking down that stigma to where we can approach it in a more direct way. We don't want to leave anything unsaid."
Which is exactly what Pecoraro is hoping to do: not leave things unsaid. Using her new role, she has been able to follow up with people who were or currently are in crisis to connect them to the resources that might help save their life.
"I then follow up with people like Galli Murray in our behavioral health system to say, 'Hey, here's what's going on,' and then they can get that subsequent outreach," Pecoraro says. "Even though someone today might say they don't need help, in a couple of days they might be completely overwhelmed and reach out."
The LOPD is continuing to find new avenues through which to spread the message of suicide prevention and awareness. One of those ways is through direct involvement with Clackamas County's Suicide Coalition. Thran is one of about 50 members of the community-led coalition, which is headed by Murray, Clackamas County Suicide Behavioral Health Division's suicide prevention coordinator, and Regional Coordinator Kathy Turner.
The coalition is still in its infancy, but Thran says he is excited to be a part of the group and has even expressed interest in becoming a member of the coalition's steering committee.
"Being a part of this coalition sets the tone that this is important to us and that we want to be up front about it," Thran says. "The more we talk about it, the more we train on it, the more we'll improve. What we're doing right now is good, but we can go from good to great."
Part of that improvement will come from the creation of Pecoraro's new position, the LOPD believes. She says there is no one-size-fits-all situation and that it's taken some sensitive navigation at times, but she's learning quickly what works and what doesn't when dealing with those in crisis and the family members or loved ones who are around them.
"People have been very receptive and surprised to learn about this position, although they're curious about who I am and what I do," she says. "I had this elderly lady who was like, 'This is your job?' But now that I have more time, I can come visit, help people problem-solve and listen to them. It's not a police call, but I am a police officer."
These organizations are here to help or provide more information on how you can help others:
Clackamas County Crisis Line: 503-655-8585 (provides 24/7 free and confidential support)
Clackamas County Urgent Mental Health walk-in center: 11211 S.E. 82nd Ave., Suite O, Happy Valley (open 7 days a week)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Lines for Life: www.Linesforlife.org
Vibrant Emotional Health: www.Vibrant.org
Suicide Awareness Voices in Education: www.Save.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: www.Afsp.org
Suicide Prevention Resource Center: www.Sprc.org
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: www.Samhsa.gov
National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.Nami.org