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Police Seek Answers for Handling Mentally Ill

Taleah Everett, a woman whose family members said suffers from psychotic episodes, was driving erratically two months ago near Capitol Hill in Washington, 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 in October of an emotionally disturbed person in a Bronx apartment building, shot and killed Deborah Danner, 66, whom the officer said threatened him with a baseball bat.

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

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

There have been similar incidents between police and the mentally ill in cities across America. According to a Washington Post analysis, about 1 in 4 people that 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 illness, said Matthew Horace, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Consequently, many police departments are putting some or all their officers through Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) so they 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 that the training isn’t mandatory because it can be expensive and it can be time consuming. Many departments have less 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, 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.

The weeklong training included virtual scenarios on how to the mentally ill, lectures by experts, site visits and role-playing scenarios, he said.

He has been in countless situations where he had to defuse domestic violence calls with the suspects/victims that were dealing with a mental crisis.

The D.C. Department of Behavioral Health partnered with Washington police after realizing police encounters with people with mental disabilities has become a major issue.

Officer Kyle Mitchell, 40, a member of the Metropolitan Police Department for over 26 years, said he welcomed the training and the partnership the people in behavioral health.

“The collaboration with the Department of Behavioral Health was probably one of the best things that could’ve happened,” Mitchell said. “People don’t know how many calls we receive day to day with situations with people dealing with mental illness, until finally someone said there’s a better way to go about this.”

Mitchell said about 5 percent of his department are CIT-certified.

Officer Chris Thompson, 32, said the training has given him a sense of awareness.

“I encourage all my fellow colleagues to take part in CIT,” Thompson said. “There have been a lot of cases where we had to refer people for treatment instead of jail. I believe this has saved a lot of people.”

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