Thursday, May 20, 2010

Seattle police department to add mental health professional to team

From the Seattle Times:

Sometime this summer, Seattle police officers responding to calls about people acting in strange and threatening ways could bring someone new with them: a mental-health professional.

The new position will be funded by a two-year, $250,000 federal-justice grant, according to Interim Police Chief John Diaz and Mayor Mike McGinn, as they made the announcement during a news conference May 18. (Both are pictured.)

The pilot program has been years in the making and builds on a program launched after a 1997 incident in downtown Seattle, when a mentally ill man with a sword held police at bay for 11 hours.

Seattle police were roundly criticized for their tactics in subduing Tony Allison, who was drenched with a fire hose, blasted with a fan, pinned with a ladder and given a sedative by paramedics before he could be taken to Harborview Medical Center.

In 1998, the Police Department and community groups created a crisis-intervention team, recognizing "there has to be a better way to deal with mentally ill people on the street," Diaz said.

Three years later, another incident involving a mentally ill man prompted the department to introduce Tasers.

In April 2000, David Walker was fatally shot by police after he failed to comply with orders to drop the knife he was waving as he skipped down a street in Lower Queen Anne.

Officers often encounter sticky situations with unstable people, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

Even though 200 of the city's 1,345 officers already have crisis-training certification, a trained professional can help take intervention further.

"It makes us better first responders," Whitcomb said.

The professional can conduct "street-level assessments" and may be able to defuse threatening situations, he added. He or she can also direct people in distress to appropriate social services.

Sometimes, when a person acts in a frightening way but has done nothing illegal, officers feel at a loss, Whitcomb said. They may write up a report — but that's it.

"This is another way for us to intervene in a meaningful way," he said.

Of course, one mental-health professional can't go out on every single call, but it's a start, Whitcomb said. Because when the system fails, there can be tragic consequences.

Whitcomb referred to the murder of Shannon Harps, the 31-year-old Sierra Club organizer who was killed in a random attack on Dec. 31, 2007, as she walked home from a grocery store on Capitol Hill.

The man who stabbed her, James Anthony Williams, is serving a 35-year sentence for the crime. He had a long history of mental illness and had previously behaved bizarrely toward women.

"Will [a mental-health professional] prevent these kinds of tragedies?" Whitcomb said.

"Maybe or maybe not. But isn't it worth taking a chance on?"