Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Des Moines Register: A number of recent police shootings in Iowa involved people with mental illness

From the Des Moines Register:

Iowa has had seven police-involved shootings since January 2008 in which the people shot suffered from a mental illness, a review by The Des Moines Register shows.

Three of the seven shootings involved officers in Boone County.

A Boone County law enforcement official, though, said its officers don't need additional training.

Boone Police Chief William Skare said he's "not sure you can have a generic response to all the situations that we deal with," when asked if he had considered additional mental health training for his officers.

Most of Iowa's city, county and state law enforcement officers have received the two-hour training offered by the state academy on how to deal with suspects and others who may have a mental illness.

But the one-time, two-hour training is not a sufficient amount to reduce the risk of death or injury to both civilians and law enforcement officers, national experts say.

Standard techniques such as shouting orders and drawing a weapon often increase the chances of violence when used on people with mental illness, they say.

Police in Boone County have said evidence suggests officers tried to resolve the three shootings - all fatalities - without lethal force:

- On Oct. 25, Boone Police Officer Rod Thompson fired his stun gun at Gerald "Gary" Beals II, 29, with little or no effect, police said. Thompson then drew his weapon and fired multiple shots at Beals, who had been waving a knife and acting erratically at a local grocery store. Beals' pastor later said Beals suffered from an undisclosed mental illness.

- In May, a man in Ogden was killed after a standoff with the sheriff's office. The man fired on officers when they attempted to enter the house to check on him. Police said they feared the man was suicidal and had not taken his medications.

- Nearly two years ago, a Boone man was killed after police said he pointed an air pistol at two Boone police officers and a sheriff's deputy. A family member told reporters he suffered from schizophrenia.

Police don't respond to calls "hoping to injure or shoot people," Boone County Chief Deputy Gregg Elsberry said.

"We respond to calls with a goal of protecting the safety of all involved without incident. No call is the same, so there is no textbook answer to any call," Elsberry said in an e-mail, the only way he would respond to questions.

The Boone County attorney has not completed a review of the Oct. 25 shooting. The other two shootings were ruled justified.

Nationwide, states have cut funding for mental illness treatment amid the economic recession. This has forced most of the nation's 18,000 police agencies to increasingly be front-line mental health providers, according to a national report released in June.

Experts say it's a role most law enforcement officers are ill-equipped for because of a lack of training.

Advocates and families reported "their experiences with police intervention have often been frustrating and unsatisfying," according to the report.

"It's the actions of the police officer that are likely going to dictate the outcomes," said John Firman, director of research at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "If a guy sees a SWAT team with weapons, he's going to feel threatened."

The policy report is the product of a national summit organized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Law enforcement departments across the country, including those in Iowa, may opt for additional training on dealing with suspects with mental illness.

Most do not, the report found.

The report emphasized most calls involving mental illness do not turn violent, and are not the result of criminal behavior.

Iowa's scant training for handling cases involving mental health issues - the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy's two-hour course - is not unusual, experts said.

The training offers a good introduction to the issue, Academy Director E.A. "Penny" Westfall said in an e-mail, the only way she would answer questions.

The academy will begin offering in January an optional 12-hour training for officers and dispatchers on understanding and identifying mental illness and substance abuse, she wrote.

National experts said it's crucial dispatchers be trained to identify calls involving mental illness, so officers can adjust their response.

A Boone County dispatcher resigned following criticism she received for telling a 911 caller on Oct. 25 to move closer to the knife-wielding suspect, a violation of internationally accepted dispatching rules.

When officers respond to a call involving a person with mental illness, normal police training doesn't apply, said Firman, the International Association of Chiefs of Police official. The person will likely not follow orders, and may act irrationally or suffer from hallucinations.

An incident involving a police officer in the Washington, D.C., area provides a glimpse at how advanced mental illness training can prevent violence, he said.

The officer, Firman's son, received a call about a 17-year-old wandering a roof of an apartment building with a rifle.

The officer climbed the stairs and made eye contact with the suspect.

Instead of drawing his weapon and ordering the teen to drop the gun, he asked a question.

"What is it you're upset about?" the officer said.

The teen laid down the rifle, and launched into a rant about his life.

Firman emphasized an officer has to open fire if people are in immediate danger. But police can prevent some incidents from reaching that point with proper training, he said.

Internationally recognized strategies developed more than 20 years ago represent some of the best de-escalation techniques, Firman said.

The key to wide adoption is awareness of the problem, and offering solutions that even the smallest departments can adopt.

"We call for a reassessment of the way police are being trained," Firman said.

"We also call for a basic level of knowledge for every officer so there's a chance incidents can go well, regardless of the size of the agency."

Departments around the country report high satisfaction with the Crisis Intervention Team program, said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in Arlington, Va.

The 40-hour course teaches officers how to identify and respond to people with mental illnesses. It is widely considered the best available.

Ideally, about 25 percent of officers in a department will receive the training, Honberg said.

The training remains most common in large urban departments with more resources, but some rural departments have pooled resources to receive the training, he said.

For example, more than a dozen agencies have partnered with police in Blacksburg, a college town in southwest Virginia. A similar training arrangement has been developed in Johnstown, Pa., near Pittsburgh, he said.

"The rural departments have all kinds of problems in terms of manpower. But there are some examples of some strong rural programs," he said.

Police in Des Moines have developed a program to better respond to mental illness.

The Mobile Crisis Unit consists of eight civilian mental health professionals, and serves Polk and Warren counties. The unit is on call 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

The unit responds to calls involving people of all ages at schools, group homes, doctor's offices and residences. Responders arrive in civilian clothing and without a weapon.

Officers have learned by observation, said Kelly Drane, a Des Moines police liaison for the unit. More now talk in a calm voice, remain patient and try to determine a person's mental illness, she said.

"Our officers have become much smarter in dealing with areas of mental illness," she said.

Some departments around the country have developed programs similar to the mobile crisis unit. They are a supplement to Crisis Intervention Team training, but not a substitute, according to experts.

"It's a great start, but it's sort of a CIT-light," said Honberg, the National Alliance on Mental Illness official.

However, most police departments pursue no additional training for its patrol officers, he said. Changing the culture within those departments is an important step, because "some feel they don't really need it."

"The advantage is fewer deaths and injuries of the people they're responding to, as well as to the officers," he said.