December 30, 2012

Newspaper series spurs call to action

State lawmakers and members of Congress say it showed a need for more data and better training.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The four-part series "Deadly Force: Police and the Mentally Ill," published this month in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, sparked strong reactions and calls for change among Maine's congressional delegation, state legislators and other policy makers.

The newspapers' investigation found that 42 percent of 57 Mainers shot by police since 2000 -- and 58 percent of 33 people who died from their injuries -- had mental health problems.

It also exposed a growing demand for public mental health services amid budget cuts that are putting police on the front lines of a community mental health crisis.

But the investigation also found that the vast majority of Maine's 3,500 police officers lack crisis intervention training to defuse potentially deadly conflicts, and that the Maine Legislature hasn't been diligent in its oversight of police shootings that are almost always found to be justified.

"The series was eye-opening," said Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. "The Press Herald profiled a really complex issue, showing us how important it is that we not ignore these patterns and tragedies that are happening across our state. It's a community problem that requires a community solution, involving families, providers, police and lawmakers."

It's also a national problem, the newspapers' investigation found, though the U.S. Department of Justice doesn't track police shootings of mentally ill people as it counts every assault, robbery and drunk-driving arrest. The investigation found spotty reports that indicate at least half of the 375 to 500 Americans shot and killed by police each year are mentally ill.

Without a mandate from Congress, the investigation found, the Justice Department takes a hit-or-miss approach to promoting and funding potential public safety solutions, such as crisis intervention training, and it cracks down on police departments only when shootings ignite public outrage.

"This series has highlighted the disturbing fact that a disproportionate number of individuals killed each year by police in the United States have some kind of mental illness," U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a written statement.

Collins said it's equally troubling that police face increased threats to their safety because of an overburdened public mental health system. While some local jurisdictions have taken steps to address the issue, she said, many others are stymied in their efforts by a lack of complete and reliable national data on police shootings of mentally ill people.

"Without this kind of data, it is very difficult for state and local jurisdictions to compare statistics and best practices and begin to ameliorate this problem," Collins said.

Collins said the federal government is "uniquely situated" to collect national data on the problem, which would help improve both mental health services and police response to crisis situations.

"The Department of Justice should work to better keep statistics and to share this information with state and local jurisdictions," Collins said.

LEGISLATORS WEIGH IN

Alfond, the Senate president, said lawmakers have a responsibility to support police officers and provide the training they need to respond more effectively to people in mental crisis.

Given limited state and local budgets, Alfond said, law enforcement leaders must take a hard look at their training needs and submit supporting information for review during budget deliberations.

Alfond said the Legislature must review its own budget priorities, especially when the state has reduced annual spending on public mental health services by $27 million in recent years, despite increasing demand.

In the meantime, Alfond said, he was glad to learn from the series that Maine police departments have a training resource close to home. The Justice Department has identified the Portland Police Department as one of six agencies in the nation that are willing to share their crisis intervention strategies with other departments.

"I hope other departments in Maine send officers down to Portland to see what the potential response can be if they get the training they need," Alfond said.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is a family therapist who brings a mental health care-provider's perspective to the issue.

"As leaders, we must examine these issues and seek solutions that will enhance our community mental health system to ensure that individuals get the help they need," Eves said in a written statement. "The families challenged by mental illness and our police officers deserve our efforts to change this reality."

Eves said it's often a tragic intersection of fact and circumstances that makes it necessary for officers to use deadly force.

"These events call upon all of us to question whether we have done enough, as a community, to prevent, to intervene, and to provide the needed mental health resources that may have averted these unfortunate and irreversible outcomes," Eves said.

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, acknowledged that Maine lawmakers "haven't made a significant amount of headway" in their efforts to reduce police shootings in general.

As House chairman of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee until the recent election, Plummer spent time with police officers and understands how tough it is make the split-second decision to pull the trigger in a moment of crisis.

Still, Plummer said, he believes the Legislature should work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Maine to improve community mental health care and increase crisis intervention training for police officers.

"I think we can do more on both ends," Plummer said. "You're always going to be faced with the situation of the officer perceiving himself or others to be in danger, but there is room for improvement and hopefully cutting down on the number of fatalities."

Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, is former House chairwoman and recent ranking Democrat on the Criminal Justice Committee. She also has spent time with police on patrol, so she shares Plummer's understanding of the challenges they face, especially in light of funding cuts for mental health care.

"If you're the mom of one of those kids in crisis, and you're locked in the bedroom, sometimes the only resource that's going to answer is the police," Haskell said. "In my experience, (officers) were far more considerate and collaborative than I would have imagined."

However, Haskell said police shootings still deserve closer examination. She noted that the Legislature created a new system three years ago to review police shootings, but the bill didn't require law enforcement officials to report their findings to the Criminal Justice Committee.

As a result, few committee members have assessed the results of the new system. Haskell said she believes they should review the shooting reports anyway, if only to increase their awareness of each incident and the public safety issues involved.

"It may not result in policy change," she said, "but at least there would be increased awareness on the committee."

She also believes the committee should review the results of crisis intervention training that's being offered by NAMI-Maine.

"Can anybody show us that this training is working?" Haskell asked rhetorically. "We don't know how often (fatal) situations have been avoided. I don't want to discount the work that's already being done."

Haskell noted that Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris enacted a crisis intervention program when he was Waterville's police chief.

"This kind of intervention is important," Haskell said. "Is there a way to do something similar for Maine State Police?"

Morris didn't respond to a call for comment.

CONGRESSIONAL RESPONSE

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said the stories in the series "draw attention to what a lot of us have known for a while: that we need to be providing more resources and attention to mental health care in this country."

"Even during tough economic times, when budgets are tight, we need to re-evaluate our current approaches," Michaud said in a written statement. "Boosting awareness and treatment across the board would help more people get well and also help cut down on the dangerous situations our police officers confront."

Michaud said he will continue to work with law enforcement leaders to support federal investments in the resources they need to safely carry out their jobs.

"Our men and women in uniform risk their lives each and every time they respond to potentially violent situations, and they deserve access to the best training and equipment," Michaud said.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the series "highlights a need for more resources for those suffering from mental illness, more training for public servants who work with the mentally ill, and for more detailed data."

"It's clear we aren't spending enough on mental health resources, which can lead to dangerous situations that put both the public and police officers at risk," Pingree said in a written statement. "The Mentally Ill Offender Act grant program does provide some funding to help train police in how to deal with people suffering from mental illness.

"Unfortunately," Pingree said, "Congress has cut the (annual) funding from $12 million to $9 million over the last few years -- cuts that I disagree with."

U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King, I-Maine, said he plans to review Justice Department reports to learn more about the issue and crisis intervention training programs being offered in some states.

"Identifying states that have addressed this issue well is a key going forward," King said in a written statement. "That said, creating a one-size-fits-all solution often creates its own set of problems."

King noted that the mental health system is stretched -- a problem exacerbated by the economic downturn putting stress on families and funding.

King said he would support increased data gathering by the Justice Department to provide a better understanding of the issue, as long as the focus is "on improving the system and not just finding fault."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

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