December 12, 2012

Maine police make spotty use of crisis training

Issues of cost and staffing limit participation in a program that could protect the mentally ill and officers alike.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Tuesday, Feb.21, 2012. Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry outside the Sagadahoc County Courthouse and Sherff's Dept. in Bath.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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That can be shortsighted, Klinger said. A former Los Angeles patrol officer, Klinger said the skills that officers gain from CIT make them more effective at their jobs overall and improve their relationship with the community.

"The payoff isn't just to avoid shootings, it makes police officers better," he said.

Last year, Maine police shot nine people, tying a 2008 record. Five of the nine shootings involved people with mental illness, and all five were killed.

In the past dozen years, Maine police have shot at 71 people, killing 32 of them. A review of these incidents found that 24 of the shootings involved people with mental illness. Seven of the shootings were alcohol-related; two involved drugs.

Maine has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country, and police shootings are relatively uncommon here. However, once officers do draw their guns, a tragic outcome isn't at all unusual. That's especially true when they're confronting people who are mentally ill, or who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

BUILDING TRUST DEFUSES THREAT

When Burne arrived at the scene in Woolwich, he developed a basic plan.

He put on his armored vest. He parked outside the perimeter set up by responding officers and stayed out of sight, concentrating on the phone call. After making contact with the man, he radioed his fellow officers. He asked them to hold their positions and remain ready, but not to make further moves that might alarm the man and lead to police entering the home.

"Things can escalate very quickly when there's an entry," Burne said.

On the phone, Burne gently probed to learn why the man was upset and what brought him to this crisis point, giving him the freedom to express his frustrations. Eventually, Burne volunteered to drive him to the hospital and introduce him to people who could help.

The man agreed, and Burne told him which door to exit and how to hold his hands. Then he radioed the officers and told them the plan, so everyone knew what to expect. The officers kept their guns aimed at the man as Burne approached and introduced himself, calling the man by his first name. He searched the man and placed him in handcuffs, but didn't require that he get on the ground or place his hands behind his back. The man was older and suffering from obvious mental problems, Burne said, and it was important that he be able to leave his home with some self-respect.

After the man was admitted to the hospital, Burne shook his hand and wished him luck. As Burne was leaving, the man called him back and told him where officers could find the gun inside his house.

EMPHASIS ON CIT TRAINING VARIES

CIT training is a priority in Sagadahoc County, said Sheriff Joel Merry, and the Woolwich standoff is an example of the program's value.

"It could have turned into something bigger," said Merry, who was at the Woolwich scene last fall. "But because it didn't escalate, it passed under the radar screen. We're very proactive and preemptive in dealing with these things before they escalate."

Merry said the training helps officers quickly determine what they're dealing with - whether it's a mental health situation or not - and use the most appropriate skills. Merry has eight CIT-trained deputies and wants all 13 of his patrol officers to take the course.

That's a stark contrast to Maine State Police, which have only 14 of 200 patrol troopers certified. But that figure should be put in perspective, said Col. Robert Williams, chief of the state police.

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