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

State police and sheriff's deputies had drawn their guns and were taking cover behind their cruisers and trees when Detective Sgt. John Burne pulled up.

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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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Burne's department, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office in Bath, was responding to a call from a panic-stricken wife. Her husband, who was in a dispute with a neighbor, showed her a handgun and made threats about harming the person.

The woman left her Woolwich house and phoned a local mental health agency, which in turn contacted police. Five deputies and three Maine State Police troopers responded, setting the scene in November of 2011 for a standoff that had the potential to turn violent.

But this police action had a peaceful ending.

Burne is a trained negotiator who has taken a special crisis intervention course aimed at defusing confrontations with mentally disturbed people. After consulting with the other officers by radio, Burne used his cellphone to contact the man.

"I got him to quickly understand that I wanted to help him," Burne said. "I had a brief window to establish some trust."

Within 15 minutes, the man came out, unarmed and complying with instructions to keep his hands in the air. Burne walked up to him and introduced himself. The man allowed Burne to place him in handcuffs and drive him to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

Burne, who retired earlier this year after 30 years in law enforcement, is modest about his role and said other officers could have achieved the same outcome. But the fact is, the majority of Maine police officers lack special training to help them peacefully defuse similar confrontations.

At a time when police increasingly respond to dangerous situations involving mental illness or substance abuse, this lack of training can increase the risk of officers using deadly force to gain control, or of being injured in the line of duty.

These conclusions are based on a review of dozens of police shootings in Maine, a tally of departments and officers who have received special training, and interviews in Maine and elsewhere with law enforcement officials and criminologists.

The training gap is most apparent with the Maine State Police. Since 1990, state police have used deadly force more often than any other department, firing a gun in roughly one third of the state's 101 shooting incidents.

State troopers often are first responders and sometimes act as front-line counselors to people who are angry and armed. But of the 200 troopers who patrol Maine highways, only 14 have received Crisis Intervention Team training.

This training, known as CIT, is a voluntary, community-based program that helps police and corrections officers handle situations involving people who are undergoing a mental health crisis. At its core are techniques meant to calm disturbed people and lower the risk of violence.

CIT isn't a panacea, and its impact is hard to quantify. But advocates say the specialized, 40-hour training program, pioneered in Memphis, Tenn., can reduce incidents of force and restraint, as well as officer injuries.

Every department in Maine "should strive to maintain at least one CIT officer per shift," according to the state's model policy for responding to mental illness and involuntary commitment. The policy was endorsed last January by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

But police are a long way from reaching that goal. The main reason is money. With tight budgets, administrators say they need to balance the benefits with the impact and cost of losing a patrol officer for a week, or paying for a replacement.

That balance illustrates the tension between "frequency and criticality," said David Klinger, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Police shootings are infrequent in most communities, so administrators are reluctant to divert resources from critical, more common needs.

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.

The state police tactical team, which responded to 35 percent of the department's deadly force incidents, arrives with a crisis negotiation team. And on a daily basis, Williams said, troopers use their skills to defuse testy situations.

In an interview earlier this year, Williams told the Portland Press Herald that he didn't realize that only 14 troopers were CIT-certified, and said he will explore ways to increase participation.

"We should make an attempt to get more people into this," he said.

That might require trimming expenses elsewhere. Each of the force's six troops has a minimum staffing requirement. Sending a trooper to a week of training can mean bringing a replacement in on overtime.

Last week, Williams was asked by the newspaper to update this year's CIT-training efforts. Some troopers were signed up for a course in southern Maine, he said, but the course was cancelled. He wasn't aware of plans for 2013, noting that the training isn't mandatory.

"If people have an interest, we'll send them," he said.

TRAINING OFFERED CLOSE TO HOME

CIT is free to Maine departments, except for a small registration fee. Roughly 1,400 police and corrections officers and emergency responders have been certified since 2000. That sounds like a lot. But that figure includes corrections workers at county jails, and it doesn't capture turnover and retirement. Exact breakdowns aren't available, but the vast majority of the 3,500 Maine law enforcement workers on the streets don't have this training. This year, a total of 236 people from a range of agencies and positions were certified.

CIT training grew out of a tragic police shooting of a mentally ill man in Memphis, Tenn., in 1988. Today, the "Memphis model" is being taught in hundreds of communities and 35 states. The 40-hour program is aimed at uniformed patrol officers and corrections officers.

CIT came to Maine in 2001, after a number of high-profile suicides in the corrections system. It's taught by staff from the Maine affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which said it receives $90,000 a year in state money to run training programs.

The alliance also teaches a mandatory, seven-hour course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, where virtually all of Maine's new police officers receive training. The curriculum includes instruction in identifying people with mental illness and suicidal tendencies and learning the basics of defusing a crisis. Students also get a two-hour session on "de-escalation skills."

UNCERTAINTY OVER PROGRAM'S VALUE

But the basic, nine hours of training is really just an academic introduction. It's a primer for police who increasingly find themselves responding to calls involving psychological problems, substance abuse and domestic strife.

This trend can make CIT a valuable tool, but a subtle one. The training is successful when nothing happens, and departments typically don't tally statistics on non-events. There are no Maine figures on CIT - except for one survey of corrections officers - so advocates can't point to a track record in the field.

That shortcoming exists nationally as well. Klinger, the University of Missouri professor, said he has long sought more research into "non-events" to better understand why they ended as they did.

Buy-in is another hurdle. Because participation in CIT is voluntary, it's up to administrators to make training a priority and for officers to embrace it.

"Your personnel has to be ready for it," said Merry, the Sagadahoc sheriff. "For some guys, it's not their cup of tea. They're not interested. And I'm sure there are some chiefs out there who aren't sold on it."

Participation rates vary widely among Maine departments. The Portland Police Department leads the state, with 107 CIT-certified staff among its roughly 160 staff, and a goal of putting all officers through the program. By contrast, the Biddeford Police Department wasn't even on the list until April.

That wasn't for lack of interest, said JoAnne Fisk, Biddeford's deputy chief. The department has twice canceled plans to send officers to the week-long training, due to staffing demands. In the past several years, Biddeford has lost more than 10 patrol positions to budget cuts, she said.

Fisk is well aware of deadly force issues. In 2009, a Biddeford officer shot and killed a disturbed woman on a downtown street. The woman called 911 and threatened suicide, then pointed a handgun at the officer who responded. This sort of confrontation is sometimes called "suicide by cop," implying that the victim desired to die.

The Maine Attorney General's Office reviewed the shooting, as required by law. Biddeford police also conducted their own internal review. Both agencies concluded the shooting was justified.

Fisk defended the officer's actions in an interview, saying no training could have averted the tragedy. But she noted the department has begun working more closely with a local mental-health service provider, Counseling Services Inc., to identify clients who may come in contact with police.

And Biddeford is following through with CIT. It sent its first six officers to a training session in Sanford last spring, using leftover project funds to pay for replacements.

FINDING THE MONEY A CHALLENGE

Tight budgets don't negate the responsibility for police to have up-to-date training, said Terry Dwyer, assistant professor of justice and law at Western Connecticut State University. Departments risk civil suits if training becomes an issue after a violent confrontation, he said.

"I don't see that as being a legitimate argument, especially with deadly force incidents," said Dwyer, a former New York State Police investigator who was unsuccessfully sued over a deadly force incident. "That's training you shouldn't be cutting corners on. It's as much an officer safety issue as anything else."

At the current pace, though, Maine can't greatly increase the number of officers receiving CIT training.

"The only way you're going to reach all officers is to teach it at the police academy," said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. "But what would it cost? And where would the money come from?"

No one has that answer.

John Rogers, who heads the police academy, figures Maine would need to train roughly 2,000 more officers. His quick calculations for a week of instruction: Fifty people in a classroom, an $80 per person academy charge and an average $25-an-hour salary to replace an officer. It would take several years and a lot of money, he concluded.

And in the end, this blanket approach may not be effective. CIT training is best suited for officers who have gained some experience in the field and show an interest in the program, said Sam Cochran, a retired Memphis Police major who coordinates the CIT Center at the University of Memphis. Not every officer has the skills for SWAT team duty, Cochran noted, and the same is true for CIT training.

"Some officers may not be ready," he said. "CIT brings with it a certain level of maturity, judgment and leadership."

But it remains desirable to have more than one CIT-certified officer on each shift, Cochran said. To achieve that, Maine police forces will need to be creative.

One example: Last year, the United Way of Mid Coast Maine used a grant to pay for replacement officers, so 15 police in the Bath-Brunswick area could attend CIT training. They included Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office deputies.

CIT is critical for rural patrols, said Merry, the county sheriff. Deputies can be far from backup by other officers and mental health professionals. Their training can make the difference between a non-event and a grieving family.

"It falls on every department to make CIT training a priority," Merry said. "These cases are disturbing to every police chief and sheriff. You don't want them to end in tragedy, and so often, they do."

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