Sunday, May 6, 2012

Police Calls Involving Mental Illness; Mental Health Workers With Guns

A general review of most police calls for problems of mental illness go something like this:
  1. oA mentally Ill person is a victim of a crime or accident.
  2. oA mentally Ill person is the perpetrator of a crime.
  3. oFamily, friends, or other concerned persons call the police for assistance during a mental health crisis.
  4. oA citizen calls the police because they feel threatened by unusual behavior or the mere presence of a person with mental illness.
  5. oA mental health agency calls for assistance when a client is disruptive.
  6. oA mental health agency calls for assistance with transport of a mentally ill person.
  7. oA mentally ill person calls police for help with auditory or visual hallucinations.
  8. oA mentally ill person calls police due to suicidal thoughts.
  9. oAn officer has a street encounter with a mentally ill person acting out.
  10. oA court order to petition, detain, commit or transport a person with a mental illness. 
As a Police Psychologist with 14 years of experience I can tell you that #3 above is perhaps the most difficult and potentially dangerous situation.

Within the last 48 hours the Town of Sharon Police in Wisconsin and Walworth County Sheriff's Deputies have had two such calls.  Here in Walworth County, Sheriff's responded to both calls with the Towns only a few miles apart.  In Sharon a 12 year old boy took his life at 7 AM before the school bus arrived but after his parents left for work.  His 8 year old brother was left to witness the act and call for help.  In Lyons Wisconsin a 22 year old male, who was reported to be mentally ill, was shot dead by a Walworth County Sheriff's Deputy after the young mans Mother called police for help because her son was brandishing a knife and threatening suicide.

While the local newspapers have given each story only sparse and incomplete coverage, the viewer response/feedback sections to each story have been filled with highly emotional writing and accusations in one direction or another.  The local police department where the 12 year old took his own life is in day two of offering counseling to interested citizens thought to be affected somehow by the act.  In Lyon's, citizens have been left to piece together their own understanding of what might have happened.  What I find frustrating is that, to the best of my knowledge, neither law enforcement agency has any real ongoing training in mental health or functional resources for dealing with mental health related calls.

As anyone is law enforcement will attest too, calls for mental illness related situations have risen substantially over the past few years.  Unfortunately, budgets have not which makes dealing with mental health issues all that more difficult.  In larger city's, departments have developed crisis intervention teams (CIT"s) where specially trained officers are able to be dispatch to such scenes rather immediately.  In most small towns and rural County law enforcement agencies, this is not yet the case.  Until it is, what we have is mental health workers with guns who lack sufficient training and who are charged with keeping the public and themselves safe in what are normally, very unpredictable situations.

In Walworth County over the past 10 years there have been at least two other situations, which also took place at night, and in which the person identified with a mental illness was shot and killed.  What we don't know is how many situations, that took place during daylight hours, were resolved peacefully.  My guess however is there have also been a substantial number of these.

In our Village in Illinois, where training and experience in mental health calls is significant, we have an officer safety alert system as part of dispatch.  When officers are called to a home where previous mental health issue's have arisen or we are notified in advance that a person with special needs is present in that home, officers are warned in route about the situation and can then roll up with a plan in place before a confrontation takes place.  The result so far has been a much better outcome.

In our area of Illinois we are also fortunate to have a very active chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  NAMI is constantly educating the public, the parents of the mentally Ill and local law enforcement on issues in dealing with the mentally ill.  Here in Walworth County where I live there is a NAMI Chapter but I fear it is not yet as fully functional.  I'll be sending them an email today to see if we can't try to change things for the better.  I'll keep you posted.


Lorene AKA Bullie4u said...

Well written. I hope Wisconsin can, someday, put together programs like Illinois did, (example: The Premise Alert Program that allows families to have data entered into Police CAD Systems - computer aided dispatch) that alerts responding officers to medical and mental health issues at a residence. The program is voluntary and is intended to serve the residents.

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