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

(Continued from page 8)

"They're authorized to give out grants and investigate if a problem is identified," said Robert Fleischner, an attorney with the Center for Public Representation in Northampton, Mass., who has represented mentally ill clients in disputes with police for about 40 years.

Developing effective law enforcement policies and practices related to the mentally ill probably should be handled at the state level with help from the federal government, Fleischner said.

A state-level approach would help address the fact that local departments tend to change policy based on one horrible incident, which doesn't always bring the best results, said Melissa Reuland, the independent consultant with the Justice Center.

Crisis intervention teams in particular, which work in some communities, haven't undergone a comprehensive, independent analysis to see what actually works. Reuland said. Supporters say about 2,000 police departments have had crisis intervention training, but only about 1,000 have active programs, she said.


Albuquerque, Seattle and Portland, Ore., all had crisis intervention programs when they saw spikes in shootings of mentally ill people.

"I cannot tell you, except anecdotally, what the impact of CIT is," Reuland said. "I want to be careful so communities don't think (it's) a press-and-play (solution). There is no one-size-fits-all."

Reuland said a major barrier to improving police response to the mentally ill is the inability of local departments to collect their own data. Computer technology, operational policies, reporting habits and officers' expertise vary greatly among departments.

That barrier may soon be broken. The Justice Center, in partnership with the Police Executive Research Forum, recently got a $428,000 Justice Department grant to provide technical assistance and report on efforts to improve data collection on mental- and behavioral-health police calls in Cambridge, Mass., Delaware, Ohio, and Denver, Colo., said Fred Osher, the center's director of health systems and services policy.

The Justice Center is expected to issue a report on the study in 2014, Osher said. Data-gathering methods that prove valuable could be applied at other departments, which would allow the center to gather broader statistical information.

With better data on the real cost of responding to mental health-related police calls, communities may see the value in spending more on mental health care.

"If we quantify the problem in numbers, we can make a case for funding," Osher said.

Ultimately, Austin Chief Acevedo said, saving money may be the prime motivation to change government policies and spending priorities in ways that reduce police shootings of the mentally ill.

"Economic realities being what they are," Acevedo said, "government agencies will be forced to put politics and concerns about local control aside in favor of effective service."

And possibly save some lives.

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

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