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Mentally ill a puzzle for police

Columbia police undergo training to broaden understanding, responses
Sunday, January 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:46 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It was an unusual report: a man walking around downtown Columbia beating everything in sight with drumsticks.

First he only beat buildings, cars and posts. But when a Columbia police officer arrived, the man beat the officer, too.

The man was arrested.

It happened a few months ago, and, as in most similar cases, the police were the first to arrive and the first to have to respond to a situation involving mental illness, a subject far removed from the expertise of most

officers.

The Columbia Police Department hopes a program it’s implementing in collaboration with the National Alliance on Mental Illness will help police intervene more effectively with the mentally ill. A kind of crisis intervention training, it has been successful in other police departments around the U.S.

Capt. Zim Schwartze, East District commander of the Columbia Police Department, said the department sent two officers, Cynthia Crowe and Brian Grove, for training in November. Both officers now know how to identify the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses.

“We have more information about mental illnesses and what they mean, so maybe if you are dealing with someone in the street you can understand

in a better way than, ‘He is being rude to me,’” Schwartze said.

One goal, she said, is to teach officers to interpret behavior differently. “Instead of taking it like an offense, try to de-escalate instead of escalate the conflict,” Schwartze said.

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“Learning about different types of illnesses takes away some of the mystery because I know a lot of officers and people in general don’t have a background in these areas,” Crowe said. “Being able to recognize

that will help us to deal with it and steer the person in the proper direction.”

The next step will be sharing the knowledge and new techniques with other Columbia police staff. After all, the police decide whether to take people to jail, drive them to the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center or try to calm them down and send them back home.

The decision is sometimes arbitrary because it can be difficult to recognize a mental illness. Deciding whether to take a person to the hospital is up to the individual police officer.

This decision usually depends on what the officer sees at the moment of the encounter. Schwartze said police officers are limited in what they can do because they aren’t psychiatrists.

“If (police) don’t know for sure what is going on, they should just bring them to the emergency room,” said Annette McDonald, a clinical nurse and psychiatric specialist at the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center. “I think it is their duty to protect them and then just bring them here.”

McDonald, who has worked in the MU department of psychiatry for eight years, also consults with Columbia police in the emergency room of University Hospital as they interact with the mentally ill. Contact with the police among mental health patients is common. Sometimes communication problems between the hospital and police make it hard to give patients the care they need.

“Sometimes we need a bit more history, because nobody knows that much (about the patient), but (police) are pretty good about it,” McDonald said. “The biggest thing is if they could stop and communicate what they see.”

In many cases the mentally ill are taken to jail because they have committed a crime. Approximately 16 percent of people in jail and prison suffer from serious mental illnesses, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Boone County Jail works with Behavior Health Concepts of Columbia, a mental health care provider, but the program is only available to those who show signs of mental illness or those who request evaluation. The jail does not have special facilities for the mentally ill, but it does have an emergency service for mental health crises.

Capt. Warren Brewer, jail administrator of the Boone County Jail, said incarceration poses serious problems for the mentally ill because jail staff can’t make the decision to give medication to inmates unless it has already been prescribed. They also struggle with cases in which a prisoner refuses to take his medication and has violent or self-destructive behavior.

“It would be preferable to take someone with a mental illness to a mental health facility rather than a jail,” Brewer said. “Unfortunately, there is that element of society that claims a mental illness or symptom merely to avoid incarceration, and the line officer is unable to make that determination without certain obvious clues.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness is among the organizations opposed to the incarceration of the mentally ill. The alliance has asked for alternatives to incarceration and more public funds for Mental Health Courts, a judicial system for mentally ill offenders involved in low-level and non-violent crimes.

Stacey Crane, the Boone County Mental Health Court Coordinator, said the Columbia Police Department has shown a real commitment to the court, dedicating an officer to work its cases. However, she said there’s room for improvement in the interaction between police and the mentally ill.

“When officers are able to recognize the symptoms and characteristics of mental illness, they will be better prepared to make the appropriate referrals to mental health agencies within the community that are equipped to deal with these issues,” Crane said in an e-mail.

From the police perspective, Schwartze said, when the mentally ill commit crimes there is no other option but to drive them to jail if the officer is unaware of possible mental health issues. However, in the case of the man who was arrested for assaulting an officer with drumsticks, they realized he was mentally ill, contacted his legal guardian and dropped the charges against him.

“The things he was saying and doing were just irrational,” Schwartze said. “In this particular case, jail was not the best place for him. He needed help and to get back to his medication and his therapist.”

“The training will help,” Crowe said. “In the years I’ve been an officer dealing with mentally ill people has gotten better, but we can still be more educated and more understanding of people who are in crisis."


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