Medford police are dealing with a sharp increase in contacts with mentally ill people, in part because underfunding has led to a "broken" state mental health system, Police Chief Randy Schoen said.

MEDFORD — Medford police are dealing with a sharp increase in contacts with mentally ill people, in part because underfunding has led to a "broken" state mental health system, Police Chief Randy Schoen said.

The Medford Police Department has placed 83 "protective holds" on city residents this year — up from 40 holds at this time in 2010. In addition, Medford police have made 155 mental health referrals, up from 85 at this time last year.

Protective holds are when officers take people into custody to prevent them from harming themselves or others. They typically send people straight to a health care provider and do not involve jail, Schoen said.

"It can be for a medical evaluation, mental health evaluation or even medical treatment," he said.

Schoen called the increases "disturbing" and said there's no easy way to deal with it.

He said the lack of funding for mental health services during the recession has left more mentally ill people walking the streets with little access to care. There is little officers can do to combat the problem except place mentally ill suspects in protective custody when they show signs of harming themselves or others, Schoen said.

"The state's mental health system is broken," he said.

The issue is particularly disturbing for local police after the April 22 fatal shooting of a Eugene police officer by a suspect who reportedly suffered from mental health problems.

"Mentally ill people who have access to firearms is a dangerous problem for everyone," Schoen said. "It puts police and the suspect in harm's way."

Medford Master Police Officer Kerry Curtis recently attended a training course on dealing with people suffering from mental breakdowns such as delirium, extreme agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, disorientation, violent and bizarre behavior.

"It is important that police recognize these problems as medical issues and not only criminal issues," Curtis said.

But he added officers are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists who can diagnose someone as mentally ill. "It is our job to keep them from being a danger to themselves or others," Curtis said.

He said officers attempt to work with mentally ill people by trying to convince them to voluntarily seek treatment at a mental health facility. But some are distrustful or even violent toward police, whom they see as a possible threat, Curtis said.

Earlier this year, Curtis said, he and other officers were forced to physically subdue a man who suffered from schizophrenia. The man's family reported that he recently had started acting bizarrely and at one point brandished a sword and made strange statements.

"It was really sad because the man and his wife had been married for 32 years and there hadn't been any problems like this until his mental health began to deteriorate," Curtis said.