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 kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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"We've demonstrated that we do a very good job of analyzing data proactively from a crime-fighting standpoint," Gillespie said at the summit. "I believe that the issue here with use of force is that we just don't have the data that can help us be more proactive about preventing mishandling of use-of-force situations."

The same month, Gillespie opened his agency to an ongoing review by the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing program, after a record 12 police shootings in 2011.

CHIEF WANTS NATIONAL POLICY

Also at the PERF summit, Austin Chief Acevedo cited protection of local control as a major barrier to reforming police practices across the U.S.

"I think the biggest problem we have in this country is that we have 18,000 police departments with 18,000 sets of policies and 18,000 ways of doing business," Acevedo said. "We should come together and develop model policies. It's about holding people accountable for their actions and having some consensus on model policies."

Interviewed more recently, Acevedo said a national model policy on police interactions with the mentally ill should be developed by leading law enforcement, mental health and civil rights advocacy groups. The federal government should require all police agencies to adopt the policy in order to receive grant funding, as it has for drunk-driving laws, he said.

In September, Acevedo adopted a new policy for responding to calls involving people who are known or thought to be mentally or emotionally disturbed. Dispatchers must send four officers and a supervisor, including at least one officer who's specially trained to resolve crises with little or no use of force.

Acevedo said he was prompted to adopt the policy as part of an overall effort to reduce potential use of force and to avoid what's happened in other departments. His department had two fatal police shootings this year; both subjects had long criminal records.

Having a similar national policy for dealing with the mentally ill would help reduce legal liabilities for law enforcement, Acevedo said, because departments would no longer have individual policies that can be challenged more easily in court. He disputed concerns about undermining local control, noting the overarching benefit of having all departments operating under recommended best practices.

"In big cities and small towns, use of force is use of force," Acevedo said.

IMPROVING POLICE TACTICAL RESPONSE

Information is available to departments that want to address the issue.

The website of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments identifies six "learning sites," including Portland, Maine, where police departments have developed effective responses to the mentally ill and officers are willing to share what they've learned.

The Justice Center also drafted reports in 2008 and 2010 aimed at "Improving Responses to People with Mental Illness." Center staff members visited four police departments and surveyed several others to learn about "specialized policing responses" to the mentally ill, including crisis intervention teams.

The 2010 report, in particular, was produced for the Justice Department with assistance from of the Police Executive Research Forum. However, on the copyright page, all three organizations explicitly deny responsibility for information contained in the report, leaving local departments to determine whether the training strategies or police practices outlined in the report are valid.

The Justice Department avoids prescribing law enforcement solutions or policies for all departments because it has no mandate from Congress to take such positions.

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