Recently, a man released from a Columbus behavioral health clinic became so upset outside the facility that police were called to the scene.
Chief Fred Shelton did not give too many details about the man to protect his privacy, but said he was screaming and throwing things. It was the sort of situation where police may have simply arrested the man for disorderly conduct.
Instead, Shelton said, officers who responded to the scene took their time to talk to the man and stay with him until a member of Community Counseling Services’ crisis staff arrived to help. Once the officers and counselor talked to him, Shelton said, they realized the man was upset because his sister, who was in charge of handling his finances, was stealing from him.
“We resolved the situation without putting him in jail,” Shelton said. “Yes, he was being disorderly, he was causing a problem, but the reason was because his sister was taking his money. That wouldn’t be an arrestable offense, (being) upset because someone was taking my money.”
Incidents like that are the reason CPD partnered with Community Counseling Services last week for department-wide training to teach officers how to identify people with mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities and other mental health-related issues — as well as how to handle those situations without the officers, the individuals or anyone else getting hurt.
It’s a common issue for police officers to deal with. According to a 2018 article in The Hill, 10 percent of police calls involve people with mental illness, and Shelton said in Columbus, officers receive those calls about twice per week.
There’s a history in the United States of police arresting people as a result of those calls as well, Shelton said.
“The easy thing is to charge them and put them in jail for, say, disorderly conduct or just causing a public disturbance,” Shelton said.
It’s also not uncommon for police shootings to involve someone with a mental illness, he added. The 2018 article in The Hill, as well as multiple national advocacy groups, say those with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by police.
Shelton said he became certified to teach officers the “Citizens with special needs” course, a four-hour course in “conflict management and understanding human behavior and interpersonal communications.” He conducted the training with Embri Allen Petty, intellectual and developmental disabilities program supervisor with Community Counseling Services.
Part of Petty’s role in the course was to go over the symptoms and behaviors exhibited by those with mental illnesses — behaviors many of the officers already knew or recognized, she said.
“Like Chief Shelton said, they come into contact with these individuals two, three times a week,” she said.
‘They’re in a crisis’
Shelton said the course emphasizes de-escalation techniques, urging officers to remain calm and take their time assessing situations to understand why someone is behaving a certain way. The course also covers defensive tactics so officers can use force if they need to without necessarily resorting to their Taser or gun.
Primarily, Shelton and Petty said, officers need to understand that people with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities may not understand what’s going on around them and aren’t being intentionally uncooperative with an officer.
“They may not understand that you’re a person of authority,” Petty said. “… They may be pacing or biting hands or hitting their head or different things like that. They may not understand what you’re saying.”
In those situations, Shelton said, officers shouldn’t raise their voices unnecessarily or issue ultimatums. Instead, the course emphasizes “E4” — empathize with the person’s situation, elicit cooperation from them, empower them to take control by suggesting solutions to whatever problem they’re facing and enable them to resolve that problem by offering help.
Sometimes that help is as simple as making sure the person takes their medication, Shelton said. Other times, it could mean connecting the individual or their family with in-patient or out-patient mental health facilities or other resources.
“In a nutshell, what it talks about is how officers can talk with people, assess their mental capacity to understand what they’re doing and try to come up with a solution on how to get them help,” Shelton said.
In many cases, the individual hasn’t committed a crime and doesn’t need is to be in jail, he said, where they often don’t have the money to make bond and are likely to further harm themselves or be abused by other inmates. If they do make bond, he said, they’ll simply go back to doing whatever they were doing that led to the arrest in the first place.
“Putting people in jail is not the answer, especially if they have a mental illness,” he said. “… They don’t get any better because that’s not the place for them. The place for them to get help is in a mental institution or a mental (health) facility. We have to help the family find alternatives.
“They’re in a crisis,” he added. “They’re trying to deal with what’s going on inside their head, and they can’t process it like a normal person. … We’re learning to be more facilitators, resources to help people get to what they need.”
The course is a new requirement for officers being trained at the police academy in Pearl, where CPD sends its officers for training. Police departments in Mississippi also have to provide an additional eight hours of mental health training for officers per year, Shelton said.
However, he recognizes that it’s not always enough training for ordinary officers, which is why CPD works with Community Counseling and its crisis staff on the more serious mental illness calls.
“We’re not trained to be psychologists or psychiatrists,” Shelton said. “… That’s why we need assistance.”
He hopes to work with Community Counseling to start a crisis intervention team (CIT) made up of an officer, a social worker, a counselor and possibly a nurse. The team would be able to respond to situations that require more training and experience with mental health disorders than a typical officer receives.
The officer would have to undergo a 40-hour course to be properly certified, however, and Shelton’s not sure yet how much the training would cost or how the city would pay for it. Still, he’s researching the issue and hopes to have a CIT in place by October.
“The ideal is to get … at least one officer on every shift that’s trained as a critical intervention team member,” he said. “…This situation can occur every day, sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning. It happens a lot more than we would like to happen, but it’s happening.”