Monday, November 23, 2009

Crisis Intervention Teams can assist police when on calls involving someone with a mental illness

From the San Jose Mercury-News:

One out of every four San Jose police officers is specially trained to respond to emergency calls that involve a mentally ill or suicidal person.

But none of them were sent to Daniel Pham's home the day the 27-year-old mentally ill man had his deadly encounter with police.

There's no guarantee that calling for such expert backup would have changed the outcome May 10, when two officers shot Pham with 12 bullets in his backyard after he threatened them with a knife. San Jose police insist it would not have.

However, new details in the Pham case released this month underscore how San Jose police's strategy differs from other police departments in dealing with the mentally ill.

In New York City or Memphis, Tenn., an officer with special mental health training would have been automatically dispatched to Pham's house the moment a 911 dispatcher learned police were likely dealing with a mentally disturbed person.

Not so in San Jose, which leaves the decision to call for help to the dispatcher or the responding officer — a strategy that many experts say isn't ideal. It's unfair, they say, to expect patrol officers to make such calls while weighing split-second judgments in highly volatile situations.

"It would have been better, in retrospect, in having a CIT officer there'' at the Pham house, said John Mitchem, president of the Santa Clara County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The nonprofit helped craft a nationwide police training program called the Crisis Intervention Team.

"That training makes a difference,'' said Mitchem, who praised San Jose police for successfully managing many psychotic episodes peacefully in the past.

CIT officers undergo 40 hours of training to recognize mental illness and how to defuse confrontations. While experts refuse to judge whether San Jose police could have done anything differently in the Pham case, there are certain strategies that CIT officers learn: avoid shouting at schizophrenics who are hearing voices; don't try to argue with paranoid people about their fears; turn off sirens; move slowly; show empathy.

"Sometimes these techniques work, and sometimes they don't. We're not teaching them to be psychologists,'' said Dr. Agi Schenley, who trains San Jose police and other departments.

Police also learn that manic people might exhibit the same behavior as those high on drugs.

When San Jose police arrived at the Pham home that day, records show that Brian Pham told police his younger brother was high on drugs and had sliced him in the neck for no reason. In an interview with the Mercury News, Brian Pham insisted he told police when they arrived that Daniel was mentally ill.

That information is crucial for police dispatchers. Mitchem said his group coaches mentally ill clients and their families to specifically request a CIT officer when they call 911.

Brian's now ex-girlfriend had called 911 from a locked bedroom but wasn't sure Daniel was mentally ill. She used his Vietnamese name, Son Pham, to describe the attacker. The police dispatcher quickly learned that police had been to the same address months before to take Daniel Pham to a psychiatric ward but wasn't sure if Daniel and Son were the same person.

Some experts say that an automatic trigger to send out a CIT officer simply takes out the guesswork.

In Memphis, when 911 calls aren't clear about mental illness, retired police Maj. Sam Cochran said dispatchers are trained to "err on the side of caution'' and send the CIT units anyway. New York uses a similar strategy.

Ten years ago, Cochran trained San Jose police — the first in California — under the model he helped create in Tennessee in 1988 after police there killed a mentally ill, knife-wielding man.

San Jose police say they "don't have the staffing for an automatic trigger,'' said San Jose police Sgt. Teresa Jeglum, who heads up the CIT unit.

The Memphis Police Department has about 230 CIT-trained officers out of a force of about 1,200 — less than 20 percent. That's compared with 349 CIT-trained officers in San Jose for a force of nearly 1,380 — or 25 percent of its force. This year, San Jose trained 90 new officers.

San Jose isn't alone in not sending special crisis intervention officers automatically to mental disturbance calls. Santa Clara police leave it up to patrol officers to call for CIT help. And in Chicago, where only 8 percent of the force is CIT-trained, dispatchers "do their best" to send out a CIT officer "if one is available,'' said Dr. Bruce Handler, a CIT trainer.

Cochran said while many people assume that an overwhelming number of police calls involve mentally ill people, his meticulous record-keeping proved to his own once-skeptical community that the number was less than 2 percent of the 800,000 annual calls to Memphis police. In San Jose, mental disturbance calls represent on average 0.5 percent of the 430,000 calls police receive each year.

"Our numbers gave the community an awareness about mental illness and proved influential when we needed to make a point,'' Cochran said.

San Jose police stopped tracking how often CIT officers are sent on calls, said Sgt. Ronnie Lopez, because of a clerical shortage.

San Jose police have defended their response in the Pham shooting. Officers Brian Jeffrey and Matthew Blackerby were cleared by a grand jury in October. Their reports indicate that the officers hopped over a backyard fence and ordered Pham to drop his knife. He refused, even after being shocked with a Taser, and, police say, lunged at one of the officers before they opened fire. He was dead at 11:51 a.m., 18 minutes after the dispatcher answered the 911 call.

The 911 transcripts released last week after a months-long public records battle show that an officer trained in using a bean bag gun was on the way to Pham's house. But they did not call a CIT unit. Since the Columbine shootings in 1999, many police agencies are now trained not to hesitate and rush right in to subdue an aggressor — even if that person has a mental illness.

"You're asking police to do an impossible task,'' said Ron Honberg, the National Alliance on Mental Illness' legal director. "In 99 percent of the cases, police do an excellent job. It's just the 1 percent that make the news.''

Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City cop who now teaches law and police studies at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agrees that police officers become a scapegoat for society's lack of attention to mental illness.

"It's hard to think of anyone worse to send in to a situation like that than a police officer,'' O'Donnell said. "But we wait until the eleventh hour to call cops, who have, at best, minimal skills to deal with this, no matter how good their tactics. It's just terrible public policy to make cops be mental health providers.''