December 12, 2012

Across nation, unsettling acceptance when mentally ill in crisis are killed

Even as they face a growing number of disturbed people, police often lack crisis training. And the leadership and data-gathering needed to stem the bloodshed are largely absent.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

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"People don't want to upset the flow of federal funding," said Joe Bruce, a nationally known advocate who lives in Maine. "But to change anything, politicians and others in positions of power need to speak up and reverse the way things have been done for years."

Since 2006, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance has doled out $5 million to $12 million annually to local, state and federal policymakers, law enforcement officials and mental health professionals under the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004.

The act funds the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program, which is administered by the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. The money is used to plan, implement and expand various corrections, housing and training programs across the country.

About $1 million of the $9 million awarded in fiscal 2012 went to the Justice Center to oversee the program, provide technical assistance for grant recipients and promote "state-based capacity building."

The Bureau of Justice Assistance also has awarded $1.3 million in discretionary funds since fiscal 2010 to support the development of mental health courts through the Justice Center as an alternative to the criminal justice system, said bureau spokeswoman Sheila Jerusalem.

In the same period, the bureau spent an additional $900,000 in discretionary funds to help the University of Memphis develop specialized police responses to people with mental illness, Jerusalem said.

Without national statistics or an independent review to gauge the success of its grant programs, the bureau requires recipients to submit performance data on their efforts and includes notable outcomes in its annual report, Jersusalem said. The 2011 report has yet to be released.

Later this month, the bureau also plans to issue a report highlighting efforts in eight states -- Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Utah -- to provide specialized training for police response to people with mental illness. In Maine, the report focuses on crisis intervention training provided by NAMI-Maine to 1,400 police, corrections officers and emergency responders since 2000. The report was prepared by the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments.

"We do notice (police shootings of the mentally ill) as an issue," said Ruby Qazilbash, an associate deputy director at the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

"There are a lot of cool models" for improving police response to people in crisis, Qazilbash said. But it would be difficult to recommend or prescribe one model or approach over another, she said, because "in law enforcement, it's really difficult to show what didn't happen."

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, disputes the idea that federally funded collaboration makes the groups involved complicit in the lack of nationwide action. He also questions the need for a stronger federal response, such as a mandatory use-of-force policy to guide law enforcement's interactions with the mentally ill.

Wexler agrees that communities need to take a comprehensive approach to the problem, involving mental health agencies in the training of every officer. But he believes the Justice Department's action in Portland, Ore., will be enough to promote necessary change in other communities.

"Other police departments will look at that as an example of where the field is going," Wexler said. "Every department has different challenges. I'm not sure one policy makes sense for every department."

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