Police response to mental health matters
Revised and re-dated due to addition of additional examples in Fullerton, CA and Manchester, NH.
The death of people in mental distress at the hands of first responders, usually police, is an issue that's been in the news for as long as I can remember.
Since "mental hospitals" started closing in the 1960s (e.g., "State mental hospitals were closed to give people with mental illness greater freedom," Boston Globe), despite the creation of the community mental health system, mostly it has been underfunded and people with mental health problems are mostly abandoned to the streets, where police are the primary maintainers of order.
When the primary tool of a first responder--a police officer--is a gun, it shouldn't be a surprise that lots of people having mental health episodes get killed by police officers ("POLICE CONFRONTATIONS: Families failed by a broken mental health care system often have no one to call but police," Boston Globe). From the article:
Nearly half of people killed by Massachusetts police over the last 11 years were suicidal, mentally ill, or showed clear signs of crisis, a Spotlight Team investigation shows. The deaths are the heavy human toll of an ongoing collision between sick people failed by the mental health care system and police who are often poorly equipped to help, but are thrust into this dangerous role.This happened last week in Fairfax County, Virginia. The person killed, Giovanny Martinez, had been admitted to a hospital but then released. Afterwards, he charged a police officer, who shot and killed him ("He sought an officer because he was suicidal, but was killed by a deputy. A family wonders: Why?," Washington Post).
Each death is unique, yet certain scenes replay: The suicidal man who steps toward police with a knife. The distraught young adult pointing a pellet gun that looks real. The troubled son, off his medication, swinging a machete, a screwdriver, a stick. Such provocations are motivated not by violent intent, typically, but rather by self-destructive despair or delusions. At least seven of those killed statewide from 2005 to 2015 yelled “Shoot me!” at officers, according to police reports. So did Robert L. Dussourd, 44, killed earlier this year by police in Braintree — one of at least four apparent suicide-by-cop attempts reported in and around Boston so far this year. ...
Recent efforts by journalists to count them, notably at The Guardian and The Washington Post, found that mental health was a likely factor in at least one-quarter of all fatal police shootings in the U.S. last year.
Creating mental distress units at local hospitals: Orange County, California. Simultaneous with the local reports from Fairfax County (which has in the past few years experienced killings by police of at least two other people with mental health issues), last week, the Orange County Register reported ("County to get first emergency centers for psych patients, unburdening hospitals") on how special mental health units will be created at two hospitals in the county, to better address the needs of people in mental distress.
Apparently, this type of health service is widely provided in California. From the article:
Orange County is set to get its first emergency medical centers dedicated to treating people who suffer sudden psychiatric episodes, addressing a void that critics say long has burdened local hospitals and left mentally ill patients with inadequate treatment. ...The response in Orange County was in part due to the OCR investigative series published on the problem in 2014 (e.g., ""A severe shortage of psychiatric hospital beds has turned Orange County emergency rooms into virtual boardinghouses for psych patients" and "The push to create Orange County's first dedicated psychiatric emergency centers") helped spur the County to action.
Hospital emergency rooms generally are ill-equipped and often lack the proper expertise to treat patients suffering psychiatric episodes, said Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadski, executive medical director of Hoag Neurosciences Institute. Likewise, those same patients often don’t need to be held at inpatient psychiatric facilities, which keep people for multiple days.
The county’s new “crisis stabilization program” will provide a middle-ground treatment method that currently is missing.
“Patients could be evaluated, discharged and transferred to the proper outpatient treatment program,” Brant-Zawadski said. “Other counties, like Alameda, already have a robust psych emergency program, where ambulance and cops take people who have mental issues to those places instead of emergency rooms.
“This is a great step forward,” he said.
Once the centers open, all Orange County police and emergency medical personnel will be told to take people suffering mental episodes or those under involuntary psychiatric holds to the new centers. Patients will be able to stay at the new facilities for just shy of 24 hours, at which point they’ll need to be released or transferred to an inpatient facility.
Street teams of police officers and crisis workers in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood. Separately, the Boston Globe reports ("Officers act as ‘guardians’ on the city’s streets") on a program where two police officers and a mental health crisis worker comprise a team that two days/week goes out into the field and aims to help people living on the street in proactive ways, rather than giving them tickets, arresting them, etc. From the article:
When Officers Michael Sullivan and Jeff Driscoll and senior crisis clinician Ben Linsky head out on their beat in Mattapan, they seek out the most vulnerable citizens: the drug-addicted, the homeless, and the mentally ill. Theirs is the only unit of its kind in the city, and its mission since it was started in February is to help, not arrest, people like Edward.
... Sullivan, Driscoll, and Linsky, who make up Mattapan’s “Operation Helping Hands,” spend two nights a week freed from dispatch calls. Instead, they get to know the people on the streets, figure out what services they need, and try to provide them.Apparently, Framingham was the first city in the state to develop such a program, and since then many other cities across Massachusetts have launched similar initiatives.
“You’re one part social worker, one part cop, and one part older brother,” Sullivan said. ...
Linsky, 34, who works for the Criminal Justice Diversion Program through Boston Medical Center and the Boston Police Department, thought he would work with police only until he could get into medical school — but five years later, he hopes to become a police officer. When he’s not riding with Driscoll and Sullivan, he’s responding to 911 calls that involve people with mental health issues.
Fullerton California completely revamps use of force, training, and other practices after the after a police officer beat to death a homeless man. After the fatal beating of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic (the city paid a big judgement to his family) rather than accept what happened as "an accident," the City of Fullerton evaluated various police processes and changed them, to reduce the likelihood of injury and death in interactions between the police and the public ("Here's how Fullerton police have improved since Kelly Thomas' death," Orange County Register).
The changes in practice were not limited to dealing with homeless people or people in mental distress, but in how all of the city's police officers interact with the public and how they are trained.
The police department has set a goal of being one of the best police departments in the country for its size, and measures its success in part The OCR article reports on the most recent review:
The study offers a half-dozen recommendations – compared with 59 in its first review – that range from striving to use the least force necessary to more cautious foot pursuits.
.. Four years ago, OIR Group recommended that officers – when safely possible – employ less force by increasing time and distance, using cover and concealment, creating barriers, and calling and waiting for backup.
The process in Fullerton is appears to be a national model, unlike the whitewashes that seem to be happening in most other cities when it comes to evaluating police departments and officers in terms of excessive force and deaths at the hands of police officers.
“The department,” the document says, “has substantially addressed many of the shortcomings we noted in our 2012 report.”
First, a new training room was built for officers to practice lesser-force techniques. Then, a video-based interactive training system was installed. It offers more than 200 bad-guy scenarios, and each one can be altered with the touch of a screen.
“These upgrades in training facilities,” the report concludes, “allow trainers to emphasize the importance of tactical alternatives to force, particularly deadly force.”
The training may be paying off. Citizen complaints have dropped from a high of 36 in 2014 to a low of 24 last year.
Still, the new report offers new suggestions. They include requiring incident reports to check off threat perception, least-use-of-force efforts, and adherence to reporting policies.
-- Fullerton Police Department: Audit of Force Reviews and Internal Investigations, August 2016, OIR Group
Manchester, NH: fire stations as point of contact for help for drug addicts. This isn't a first response to mental distress matter exactly, but, the Wall Street Journal reports, "Fire Stations Open Their Doors to Addicts" how Manchester, to deal with its rampant substance abuse problems--the city has about 8 deaths per month from drug overdoses--they have created an empathetic/non-judgemental response system where people seeking help can go to the local fire station without fear of being arrested, and then get help and referrals to nonprofit drug rehabilitation and other programs. The city has provided funds to the nonprofits so they can provide the necessary programming.
Conclusion. Clearly, programs like these are overdue for Fairfax County and many other communities. It's not like there aren't proven better models for practice.
-- "After a year with no answers in Fairfax police slaying of John Geer ...," Washington Post
-- "James Bryant killed by police outside Fairfax County homeless shelter," WJLA-TV
-- "Fairfax jail inmate in Taser death was shackled," Washington Post