Policing Mentally Ill Citizens

Policing Mentally Ill Citizens

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When Amy Watson was a probation officer in the early nineties, she had a lot of clients with mental illness and she noticed a pattern.

Watson - Anytime they were anywhere near police officers it would turn into some type of fight.

Her clients would be charged with battery, then miss their court date. A warrant would be issued and the police would track them down leading to another fight and the cycle would repeat. Watson began wondering if there wasn’t something the police could do differently. Now she’s an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. She’s collecting stories from people with mental illness about their experiences with police.

Watson - “We had one man who the police came in because he was suicidal, and like four or five police officers arrived and kicked in his door, he was sitting on his couch in his underwear, unarmed, and they started yelling at him to get down, get down! And as he was thinking well I better comply or someone’s going to get hurt he basically was tackled and taken down.”

That’s the kind of situation in which the citizen and the officers can end up bruised, or worse. Earlier this month a Humboldt Park man whose family says he was mental ill called the police for help. Officers reportedly ended up shooting the man. He later died. The police department is also facing a hundred million dollar lawsuit for the way it handled the case last summer of a woman with bi-polar disorder. Despite alleged pleas from her parents, 21-year-old Christina Eilman was released from police custody into a high crime area. Shortly after, she was apparently sexually assaulted and then fell from the seventh floor of a public high rise building. The courts will decide who, if anyone, is to blame, but Lt. Jeff Murphy wants to help officers minimize the chances that such situations would even arise…or go bad. He’s spent the last three years teaching other Chicago cops how to effectively deal with citizens who are mentally ill.

Murphy - Police officers by their very nature are, take control of every situation that they go into. We teach police officers to assume control.

Murphy says the traditional police approach can be counter productive. In the C-I-T or Crisis Intervention Team classes that he leads, Murphy tells officers, that unless an individual is a threat to themselves or someone else, the best thing to do is just slow things down and calmly talk to the person in crisis.

Murphy - CIT officers are trained that anger is okay because it gives the individual an opportunity to vent energy that they might otherwise spend harming themself, or harming someone else. Officers learn about specific mental illnesses and how to spot the symptoms.

street sounds

Sargent Phil Greco directs a dozen officers on foot patrol as they flood a busy stretch of Wilson Avenue on Chicago’s north side. The show of force is to intimidate gang members who tend to come out more with the spring weather. But walking down the street Greco passes more people who are homeless, or mentally ill, or both. This district has one of the highest concentrations of residents with mental illness in the city. That’s why Greco volunteered to take the CIT training.

Greco - Anything that can help us police out here is worth having.

Most officers haven’t had ANY mental health training. It wasn’t until 2002 that the police academy began giving new recruits one day —just eight hours— of training on mental health issues. Of the more than 13-thousand officers on the Chicago police force, only three-hundred have gone through the Crisis Intervention Team program. Greco says the crisis training taught him to be more empathetic to people suffering from schizophrenia. He remembers one exercise in which he had to wear a pair of headphones playing tracks of multiple people talking. Then he had to try to carry on a conversation with a classmate.

Greco - It was just absolutely annoying, it was frustrating and I never imagined that communicating could be so tough in those circumstances.

Police officers all over the country are now undergoing mental health training. Nationwide, about 200 cities have implemented the CIT program including other big cities like Los Angeles. But Lt. Rick Wall, the mental health coordinator for the Los Angeles police departmenet says the law enforcement community has been slow to adopt mental health initiatives.

Wall - “The argument has always been, well we’re police officers. This is a mental health issue, this is the mental health system and its their responsibility to fix this problem. It’s not the problem of law enforcement.”

It was the advent of psychotropic drugs in the 1950s that made it possible to control mental illness and patients subsequently left mental institutions and reintegrated into American society. But in the community, when there’s a problem, it’s the police who often have to solve it. And Wall says untreated mental illness can quickly tap resources.

Wall - We had an individual who in the period of six weeks, had called the fire department 25 times. Now its four hundred and 87 dollars every time an engine company responds. He also called the police department 20 times.

Wall says he had a detective spend one day helping the man navigate through the mental health system. It’s been 10 months since they’ve had to respond to another call from him. Lt. Jeff Murphy doesn’t think Chicago’s ready, yet, for the police officer as social worker, but he says it’s an inescapable fact that police end up dealing with troubled people sooner or later. Right now Murphy’s focussed on getting another 700 officers trained in Crisis Intervention.

Murphy - With a thousand police officers trained, we would have a sufficient number to guarantee that there would be a CIT team available, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in all 25 districts in Chicago.

Murphy hopes to reach that benchmark by the end of next year.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Robert Wildeboer.