Police do double duty in crises involving mentally-ill people

BRATTLEBORO — The most frightening thing for people in the middle of a mental health crisis is that they often cannot hear or understand what is happening around them.

If a person is mentally ill, not taking his or her medication, and confused, it can exacerbate a crisis. For police officers called to a scene involving a person in crisis, it can be difficult to accurately assess the circumstances. The police must try to gauge the situation based on unknown factors. With an agitated person in crisis, the officer is often operating in a “fight or flight” state, with a full adrenaline cascade.

The result is that the situation becomes volatile for the officer and the mentally ill person.

In the recent case of a Brattleboro Police officer shooting a mentally ill man, the situation was clearly fraught with danger for both the man and the police officer. At town-wide forums conducted prior to this incident, citizens had recommended alternative measures that might safely and more effectively resolve potentially violent episodes involving the mentally ill.

Having worked in New York City psychiatric wards with severely ill patients, I have observed firsthand that, with the appropriate training and resources, emergency personnel can safely de-escalate violent situations without risking harm to themselves or others.

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Though a mental health crisis occurring on the street creates a more precarious situation than one that happens in a controlled environment, these situations can usually still be safely managed.

First, in praise of the local police department: I have observed instances in which police officers, to their credit, have spoken calmly and acted humanely, without resorting to using a gun or a Taser, to help someone in crisis. The task requires skill and compassion. The situation is even more dangerous if the person's condition is exacerbated by a host of unknown variables, which might include medications, alcohol, illicit drugs, and the most powerful drug of all - the adrenaline that surges through the bloodstream with the onset of panic.

However, as was discussed in numerous town meetings after Robert Woodward was killed by two Brattleboro police officers in 2001, the police are still are not adequately trained to assess and safely manage a person in the throes of a mental health crisis. To be fair, this task is not their prime area of expertise. However, every officer needs to have a solid competency in managing the situation.

As had been recommended in the Department of Justice (DOJ) community roundtable discussions, there needs to be a Mental Health Resource unit available to assist the police at all times. The absence of such a unit is part of the ongoing institutional weakness in the department and town. We expect the police to adequately deal with a host of social issues, that, in reality, are not part of their job.

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This lack of resources is an epidemic problem facing police departments and the justice system around the United States. With all social services cut back, the mentally ill, the addicts, and those in crisis have become the responsibility of the police. It had been recommended in a DOJ roundtable that a far more prudent step is to hire a full-time mental health/social work coordinator, not additional police.

Currently, in Brattleboro, there is a position open for an additional police officer. It would be far more prudent and cost effective to hire a social worker for this position. We have some institutional mechanisms in the community, such as the Restorative Justice Center, that can help to mediate interpersonal problems that lead to public safety issues, but they are not enough. Nor is there adequate coordination between those in charge of public safety and the social service network.

It is unfortunate, but inevitable, that the person who was shot by a police officer in this instance will sue the town, and they will probably win. Given Brattleboro's unwillingness or inability to make significant changes in practice and procedures, the town and taxpayers will be forced to continue paying for these types of lawsuits. It is like having ice on your sidewalk,never clearing it, and wondering why you keep getting sued.

One of the other institutional ongoing problems is that Brattleboro continues to retain ineffective legal counsel that has cost the town more than $500,000 in unnecessary lawsuits related to policing.

Nevertheless, there are successful models of “Police Psychiatric Response Teams,” such as the one implemented in Los Angeles. (For more information, see bit.ly/fT3pwx.)

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Prior to the most recent incident, recommendations had been made to form a volunteer network of mental health professionals in the community to assist the police with crisis scenarios.

For instance, it makes no sense for the police to repeatedly to go to a domestic violence situation if the spouse is an unemployed, mentally ill alcoholic. The person does not need to be in jail. The person needs to be in a treatment facility.

Another useful mechanism would be for the town to genuinely implement the Civilian Police Community Board, thereby fulfilling the original voter's mandate. The present board is a mere shadow of the original mandate the voters gave in the town-wide referendum.

Do the town and the Brattleboro Police Department have the courage to implement a program designed to promote non-lethal means for responding to people undergoing mental health crises?

If they don't, are Brattleboro taxpayers willing to continue footing the bill for expensive lawsuits, while putting our police officers - and the citizens they serve - in jeopardy?

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