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Office of Police Complaints Featured in The Washington City Paper

Friday, April 4, 2008
Reprinted from The Washington City Paper

Dropping Out
When it comes to dealing with the mentally ill, the police need schooling.
By Jason Cherkis Washington City Paper Senior Writer

The mother kept telling the police she was mentally ill.

It was late morning on May 20, 2006. Officers had stopped the woman’s son along the 1400 block of Half Street SW. When she came around the corner, she claims she saw one of the officers choking him. She tried to get the officer to stop.

She then became the officers’ focus. According to her written account to the city’s Office of Police Complaints (OPC), she was slammed to the pavement and knocked unconscious. When she came to, she was handcuffed and placed under arrest for assault.

She just needed her medication, she pleaded to the officers. “They told me I was not telling the truth and to shut up,” she wrote.

The police ignored her. They transferred her to a district station and placed her in a cell. But the woman kept at it: “I continue to tell them that I need my mental health medication they continue to laugh at me.”

She then walked to the cell’s commode. “I began to put my head in the toilet,” she wrote, “and try to committ sucide.”

The woman’s anguished complaint eventually was dismissed after she stopped cooperating with OPC investigators. But it is not unlike the complaints of other mentally ill residents who’ve had encounters with the D.C. police department—both as victims and alleged perpetrators of crimes. Files at the police complaint office turn up accounts of cops behaving with alleged indifference and occasional cruelty.

• A homeless man wrote that after being assaulted on June 19, 2002, while waiting for a bus, police officers on the scene made fun of his appearance, called him a “white mother&#@*%*,” asked if he was mentally ill, and refused to arrest his assailant. The OPC report goes on to say that another officer eventually arrested his attacker, who was later convicted.

• In spring 2006, a man had come to believe intruders were lurking in his Massachusetts Avenue NW apartment building. He barricaded his front door with two-by-fours. Since he didn’t have a phone to alert the authorities, he set off his smoke detector to ward off the would-be troublemakers. After the fire department showed up, he dismantled his fortress and apologized. He wrote OPC that a cop forced him to the ground, cuffed him, and kneed him in the back before taking him for a mental evaluation. He wrote that he was not allowed to put on shoes and a shirt.

• On June 19, 2007, while walking by the small park at 14th and Girard Streets NW, a woman was accosted by a knife-wielding female. According to her OPC account, she ran to an officer posted nearby. The cop asked her if she was on any medication. “I told him yes,” the woman wrote. “I was bi-polar, I took medication, then he said the whole altercation was my fault because I was bi-polar. He asked me if I had missed a dose.”

It’s hard to say how often D.C. police officers mistreat mentally ill residents—the police complaints office does not keep statistics on this type of case. Anecdotage is all there is, and there’s enough of it to put OPC on a mission to change the rules of engagement. “What I know is based on reviewing the complaints and the narratives,” says OPC Executive Director Philip Eure. “You have a variety of reactions to people who are mentally ill. There are some officers who have the natural empathy.…

And you have other officers [who] because of a lack of good training don’t know how to respond. Some officers make fun of these people, laugh at them, mock them. Much of that is based on ignorance.”

In September 2006, Eure and his agency recommended wholesale changes in a lengthy report to then Mayor Anthony A. Williams and then Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. The report advocated using Memphis as a model for the District.

In the late ’80s, the Memphis Police Department developed a way of dealing with mentally ill residents with its Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model. In addition to training the rank-and-file cops, the department selected officers to undergo an additional 40-hour training session. These officers became mental health crisis specialists operating much like a SWAT or vice squad.

Instead of diffusing a hostage situation or nabbing corner dealers, CIT cops specialize in taking care of the bipolar teenager in the midst of a manic episode. When such a call comes in, at least one CIT officer is dispatched to head up the case. With trained personnel on the scene, the outcome is less often a night in jail followed by arraignment and more often a call to a social worker or psychiatrist.

“We have a duty to be able to bring people into services without the unnecessary placing of some type of criminal charge,” says Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis department.

As word spread that the cops weren’t just out to hassle the mentally ill, calls for service spiked. In 1988, CIT officers fielded 3,000 calls, according to Cochran. They now receive 12,000 calls per year.

The model has spread to police departments across the country. Thirty jurisdictions in Georgia, for instance, are adopting the approach. Seattle began its version of the CIT program in 1998.

Sgt. L.J. Eddy, who heads up the Seattle Police Department program, says the CIT method just blows away departmentwide training efforts. “It’s just not as effective,” she says. “If you have an officer who’s just not good in dealing with mentally ill people, if that officer ends up on a call with someone and they kind of don’t want to bother, they don’t. If that officer has the option of calling a CIT officer, I think that’s better all around.”

Despite the push from Eure, D.C. has stuck to its train-all approach on the theory that any officer should be able to handle a radio run for a mentally ill resident.

Yet the preparedness of D.C. officers for such encounters remains in question. At a hearing before the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee in late February, Eure described the department’s training as “limited and inadequate.” In a subsequent letter to the committee’s chair, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, he wrote that the department last provided mental-health-related training in 2005, which consisted merely of a four-to-eight-hour session. “This training falls well short of the mental health training that would be required under any model,” Eure argued.

Commander Brian Jordan, the department’s point person on the issue, says he’s seen no significant use-of-force problems. Of the other misconduct complaints, he says: “These are the types of things that you will always have....You are always going to have indifference among officers.”

Jordan could not exactly state how much time the rank and file spend on mental-health-related training. Nor could he say what officers are actually taught. “I don’t have the curriculum in front of me,” he said. “Not all [of it] is mental health training. Some of it is about force investigation, some of it’s verbal judo.”

Few officers seem to have a black belt in the subject. “We don’t have any special training,” explains Lt. Peter Larsen of the 7th District. “I guess they go over some things. I’m not sure how much specific training they get. [It’s] not every year.”

Whatever training that has taken place, Jordan says, came from the city’s Department of Mental Health (DMH). Stephen T. Baron, DMH’s director, assesses the police training this way: “For a couple years there it was pretty good mental health training, and it kind of dropped. We’re picking it up now. There’s a goal to have the first training in June.”

DMH logged 3,462 mental evaluations at its psychiatric facility on the grounds of D.C. General for the last fiscal year. From October through January, 1,123 residents have been referred for an evaluation. Seventy-five percent of those cases came from law enforcement agencies.

By mid-summer, Baron hopes to have established a mobile crisis response team that would assist on police calls. The team, comprised of a pair of mental-health professionals, would be available 16 hours per day. Baron says two-thirds of the needed $2.1 million has been identified for the program.

Baron says he believes in the CIT model. The mobile crisis teams could be a valuable tool for the police.“I like the model that also has a more prominent role for mental health professionals....We need to work closely with the police department. We need to build up a level of trust.”