Training can help police respond to mentally ill

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to give more time back to the community with increased service to Mental Health Partners of Hancock County. I have spent the past few years on the board of directors of this organization and witnessed a slow but steady transition in its goals. Mental health is a vitally important issue both nationally and locally.

Because the holiday season is one of the most emotionally stressful times of the year MHP, formerly the Mental Health Association, operates its Gift Lift program. This year 18 volunteers spent an estimated 81 hours wrapping gifts donated for this cause. Nearly 200 people reached out to MHP requesting gifts.

Between donated gifts and volunteer-made items, Gift Lift presented those families with gifts valued at $20,102. That is an amazing accomplishment for such a small volunteer organization. December is but one month of the year, and mental health issues affect each and every one of us year-round.

Due in part to decades of budget cuts to services for the mentally ill, there is a too little addressed crisis in the nation. This crisis goes far beyond well publicized mass shootings. It even goes beyond the astounding number of homeless people in the U.S. Mental illness affects nearly every family in this country. It is not simply a national problem. It is a local problem as well. While Hancock County has been spared the tragedy of mass shootings thus far, we do have homeless people here, I suspect far more than we realize.

In Hancock County we are poorly prepared to deal with the mentally ill, but that does not make us an exception. Consider that through Dec. 24 there were 124 mentally ill persons shot and killed by police in 2015. Police and mental health experts agree many of those deaths may have been preventable. Such experts point to the need for better police training in how to deal with the mentally ill. In fact, more than half of the 124 killings involved police departments with no officers trained in how to de-escalate encounters with the mentally ill.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said, “This is a national crisis … we have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill.”

One study shows that in the vast majority of the cases where a mentally disturbed person was shot by police, the officers were not responding to reports of a crime.

Usually they responded to someone’s pleas for assistance. Part of the problem lies with the fact that officers of the law are trained to respond with tactics that actually make volatile situations even more dangerous. Nationally, police acknowledge they have few effective tools for handling these types of cases. Typically police recruits spend about 60 hours learning to handle a gun, yet receive only eight hours learning how to deal with a mentally disturbed individual.

Most of that training has been counterproductive. While those tactics are often effective against typical criminals, they make matters worse with a mentally ill person. These persons do not process what is happening in the same manner as the normal criminal. Ron Hornberg, Policy Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, points out that the methods taught police are “like pouring gasoline on a fire when you do that with the mentally ill.” Without large-scale police retraining, as well as a nationwide increase in mental health services, these deadly encounters will continue to escalate.

Locally there is some agreement that new steps must be taken to effectively improve how our first responders respond to mentally disturbed persons. It is an issue that local police and EMT workers have said disturbs them. I am pleased to state that a task force, created through MHP, is being formed to address this issue as well as assessing how effectively our local mental health dollars are being utilized and ways to reduce the number of criminal court cases where alternative mental health services would suffice.

I am greatly encouraged by the interest shown by State Sen. Mike Crider, Judge Richard Culver, Sheriff Mike Shepherd, Prosecutor Brent Eaton and Fire Chief James Roberts. I truly believe that with the efforts of these and other individuals teaming up with Mental Health Partners, we can achieve much in 2016 for the betterment of Hancock County.

Michael Adkins is the former chair of the Hancock County Democratic Party. He lives in Greenfield.