Police departments and policymakers around the country are grappling with how to bolster training for cops on mental health issues in the midst of a string of high-profile fatal incidents involving suspects believed to be in the throes of mental breakdowns.
The current debate on policing in America has largely focused on whether inherent racial bias has led to police disproportionately using deadly force against African-Americans.
But long simmering on the back burner is the struggle for police departments to deal with the eye-popping number of deadly incidents that involve people with mental health issues, law enforcement and mental health experts says. A study by the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center published last year found that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely than others to be killed by police, while the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 15% of men and 30% women annually booked at U.S. jails have mental health problems.
“What departments are going through right now is nothing short of a cultural revolution,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health and Justice. "Jails have become the alms house of this generation and police have become the first responders to the mentally ill."
The issue of mental illness and policing was drawn back into the spotlight after police in El Cajon, Calif., on Sept. 27 fatally shot Alfred Olango, 38, an unarmed man who was killed after his sister says she called police for help because he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Olango's sister, who has not been identified, says she told police that Olango did not have a weapon.
Police in the San Diego suburb said officers fatally shot Olango only after he rapidly pulled an object from his waistband and took what was described as a “shooting stance.” After shooting him, police discovered the object that Olango drew from his pants was a vape device.
The Olango shooting came days after the controversial police-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte in which his wife can be heard on a cellphone video telling police officers that Scott suffered a traumatic brain injury moments before they opened fire. Police say Scott was holding a gun when he was shot, while some family members say he was only holding a book.
Before the incidents in Charlotte and San Diego, there had been a surge in the effort by police departments and politicians looking to find ways to reduce the number of instances in which force is deployed and diverting the number of mentally ill people from the expensive proposition of incarceration.
In Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges in August introduced plans for a pilot program that would pair mental health professionals with streets cops responding to emergencies. Meanwhile, the Chicago Police Department this month launched a new mandatory de-escalation training program for the nation’s second-largest police force that has a heavy focus on mental health training.
And during the first presidential debate, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said the federal government should do more to support police departments to deal with the vexing issue.
“Police are having to handle a lot of really difficult mental health problems on the street,” Clinton said. “They want support, they want more training, they want more assistance. And I think the federal government could be in a position where we would offer and provide that.”
TRAINING WITH BALANCE
In the newly launched Chicago training program, officers, over two days, are presented a variety of live scenarios and exercises that force them to wrestle with how they would respond to tense situations.
As part of the training, the department is using some recent incidents as teaching moments — including having officers study aspects of a controversial police shooting last year in which a Chicago cop killed a bat-wielding college student in the throes of a mental health crisis, while also mistakenly fatally shooting the young man’s 55-year-old neighbor.
That incident last December came a little more than a month after the city was forced by court order to release a chilling video showing a white police officer fatally shoot a black teen 16 times. Laquan McDonald, 17, who was gunned down holding a small knife as he appeared to run away from police had a history of mental health problems.
Sgt. Larry Snelling, lead instructor of the Chicago training program, said the department wants officers to use the least amount of force as possible.
“That being said, de-escalation doesn’t always work,” Snelling said. “The training is balanced in the hopes that officers when they are faced with a deadly threat…are capable of responding to save the lives of one of our citizens or themselves.”
TRAINING ALONE NO PANACEA
More than 3,000 of the nation’s roughly 18,000 police departments have some or all of their officers go through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, according to Laura Usher, a program manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The model for the program, which was pioneered in the late 1980s by the Memphis Police Department, calls for 40 hours of training that includes teaching officers verbal de-escalation skills, scenario-based training and having officers spend time interacting with individuals who have gone through a mental health crisis.
It’s unclear what percentage of departments have such robust training. A survey published by the Police Executive Research Forum last year found that that new recruits received a median amount of eight hours on crisis intervention training compared to 58 hours on firearms training.
Usher said that while police chiefs largely recognize that a disproportionate number of people arrested have mental health issues, but they struggle to make time for training when they face demands to keep officers on the street.
“The other thing is that the training is not a panacea,” Usher said. “It’s also about the partnerships with their local mental health agencies and advocates in changing the culture and how the community approaches people in a mental health crisis.”
Some law enforcement experts, including the LSU criminologist Scharf, say mental health training can help officers reduce arrests for relatively small infractions and help cops build a baseline of understanding about what mentally ill people experience – valuable knowledge when thrown into a volatile encounter with someone in the midst of a crisis.
But Scharf cautioned that the training has its limitations for a cop who has to make a split-second decision particularly when dealing with someone who is believed to be armed and agitated.
"Should police get this training? Yes," Scharf said. "But just like you can't do neurosurgery with eight hours of training, you can't expect a cop to be able to learn to talk a gun out of the hands of someone with such limited training."
COPS BUDDY UP WITH MENTAL HEALTH PROS
Over the years, a handful of large and midsize departments – including Los Angeles and San Antonio – have partnered with mental health professionals to work as “co-responders,” assisting street cops responding to incidents involving individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Some midsize departments in recent years have begun testing pairing cops with mental health professionals.
The Overland Park (Kan.) Police Department, a force of about 250, hired a “co-responder” in 2014 to assist officers after seeing a surge in mental health related calls, which were often bogging down beat officers’ time.
During her first year on the job, the co-responder, Megan Younger, helped divert individuals on 129 occasions to receive mental health care, according to Overland Park Police.
The department estimates that her work also helped the department avoid making 40 arrests during her first year on the job, saving the department $61,000 in costs.
Overland Park police officials believe that the interventions with the co-responder, who has made more than 1,800 visits with people with mental health issues during the time with the force, mitigate the chances of a more dangerous encounter with the individuals occurring in the future.
Officer Jackie Zickel said she partnered with Younger not long after the department started the program and saw firsthand the efficacy of having a mental health specialist by her side. The first call she was on in which Younger was deployed involved a couple whose adult son was destroying their home during a schizophrenic episode.
Zickel recalled that when she and her police partner arrived at the volatile scene the young man had locked himself in his room. Zickel was eventually able to talk the young man into coming to the family’s living room to meet Younger, who was able to persuade him to take his medication.
“They see the difference between us and her,” Zickel said. “It helps them understand that we’re there to make sure the situation stays safe, and that she is there to help them get out of the crisis.”
Follow USA TODAY Chicago correspondent Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad