After some recent suicides and suicide attempts in Portland, Police Chief James Craig has publicly raised important questions about how society should handle people in danger of doing harm to themselves.

Trouble is, the current system offers few real answers to those questions.

Referencing one case in which a man who hanged himself in Fort Allen Park and another in which a woman threatening to jump off a bridge nearly pulled the police officer who saved her over with her instead, the chief is worried that such people don’t get the care they need. “What are we going to wait for?” Craig asked. “Another tragedy? A police officer getting killed by somebody who has been in and out of a facility? What could we do differently to prevent or at least minimize this kind of situation?”

What motivated the chief to speak out was the disturbing death last month of Michael Simpson, 37, a merchant mariner whose body was found hanging from a tree in the park. Simpson’s belongings included a note that said the rope he had used to kill himself had been in his possession Oct. 23 when he sought help for suicidal feelings at a local hospital.

Even though he told personnel there that he wanted to use it to hang himself, it was returned to him when he was transferred to a mental health facility and discharged two days later.

“Would you give a suicidal man back his shotgun?” Simpson’s note asked.

Craig noted that people contemplating suicide often have long-standing problems or personal circumstances that cannot be resolved in brief interactions with the medical community.

And, he said, it’s not possible to predict if someone who says he may kill himself actually will do it. Mental health professionals point out that most people who talk about suicide either do not attempt it or do not succeed in carrying it out.

Nevertheless, the chief is right in wanting to know if there is something more that can be done for people like Simpson, who had been the subject of previous intervention last summer.

Most patients are discharged even from specialized care after only eight or 10 days, and rely instead on outpatient clinic treatment and friends and family for encouragement and support. Patient advocates say laws make it difficult to require hospitalization, and underfunding for outpatient care leaves many people getting less-than-effective treatment.

Without changes to the laws that govern involuntary treatment — and better funding for it — tragedies like Simpson’s are bound to recur.