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Police look for answers in policing the mentally ill

KIARA BURWELL, Howard University News Service | 5/18/2017, 1:08 p.m.
Taleah Everett, a woman whose family members said suffers from psychotic episodes, was driving erratically two months ago near Capitol ...

Taleah Everett, a woman whose family members said suffers from psychotic episodes, was driving erratically two months ago near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., when Capitol Police, fearing a possible terrorist act, shot at her car to stop it. Everett, 20, was not injured.

There was a different outcome a few months earlier in New York City. A police sergeant, responding to a 911 call last October about an emotionally disturbed person in a Bronx apartment building, shot and killed Deborah Danner, 66. He said she threatened him with a baseball bat.

The shooting sparked outrage, including from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio reprimanded the officer and called Danner’s death “tragic” and “unacceptable.”

Ironically, police had been called to Danner’s home several times to take her to the hospital during psychotic episodes, the mayor said, and each time, she was taken away safely.

There have been similar shootings and deaths during encounters between police and the mentally ill in cities across America. According to a Washington Post analysis, approximately 1 in 4 people who were fatally shot by police in 2015 were struggling with a mental health issue.

Increasingly, police are finding a large part of their job is dealing with the mentally ill, something for which they are not initially trained.

In fact, parts of the core training police receive that are beneficial in regular street encounters, such as developing “command presence,” can have the opposite effect when dealing with the mentally ill, said Matthew Horace, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Consequently, many police departments are putting some or all their officers through Crisis Intervention Training, so officers will be better prepared to deal with mental illness.

Even with the heightened awareness, only 16 percent, or 1 in 6, of the nation’s 18,000 police departments are currently initiating this training, according to Laura Usher, senior manager for criminal justice and advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a national organization that lobbies for the mentally ill.

The training, though badly needed, police departments said, is highly encouraged but not mandatory.

Horace said the training isn’t mandatory because it can be expensive and it can be time consuming. Many departments have fewer than 40 officers, he said.

“There isn’t enough man power to remove officers off the streets and place them in training,” he said. “Another factor is there aren’t enough sufficient funds.”

Washington officer William Kelly, 47, said he receives approximately five calls a day regarding incidents involving the mentally ill. Many of the people he encounters struggle with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he said.

Kelly and many other officers in the 4th District in Northwest Washington have undergone 40 hours of CIT, which Kelly said has helped him immensely.

“After taking the class, whenever I receive a call of something of that nature, I now have a better understanding of the situation and can further go with handling the dispute or incident properly,” he said.