HANCOCK COUNTY — Joe Holt is certain his daughter doesn’t understand what’s happening when she gets arrested.
Erica has cerebral palsy, bipolar disorder and a few other ailments; at 27, she functions more like a 4- or 6-year-old, her father said. And when an officer puts a pair of handcuffs on her wrists and books her into the county jail — it’s happened twice this year — she sees it more as a timeout at some strange slumber party where everyone wears matching orange pajamas.
Holt, of Greenfield, won’t make excuses for his daughter’s behavior, he said: yes, she’s lashed out at the home health care nurses who stay with her, and at times they’ve called 911 for help. When officers arrive, his daughter has probably kicked and smacked at them, as they say. The police have carted her off to jail on charges of battery on a public safety officer — as they would with anyone else her age.
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But the difference, officials say, is that Erica and others like her don’t always recognize their actions are wrong, let alone criminal. Now, local law enforcement agencies are taking steps to ensure their officers are better trained to interact with people with mental illnesses.
One Hancock County sheriff’s detective recently returned from a weeks-long crisis-intervention training; and the Greenfield Police Department’s assistant chief is preparing to take the same course.
Together over the next year, they’ll teach every member of their departments — and hopefully many more of the county’s law enforcement officials, they say — tactics for helping someone who’s out-of-control behavior, their disruption in the community, is caused by illness, not crime.
These new training events will give local police officers the tools they need to better recognize mental disabilities and disorders so they can calm a situation rather than jumping to arresting and filling the local, already crowded jail with people who don’t belong there.
Officials hope one day to create a crisis-intervention team that can be called out to handle such emergency situations. Members of the team would then follow up with the person involved to ensure they are taking advantage of available counseling, programs or medications they need.
Hancock County Sheriff’s Maj. Brad Burkhart has met Erica Holt.
Seeing her sitting in the jail, surrounded by criminals, is strange, Burkhart said. She’s like a little girl in a big scary place. She repeats over and over again that she knows she’s done something wrong, and she’s sorry, he said. Sometimes, she asks to go home; other times, she acknowledges that the jail is where bad people are brought to be punished, and she tells him she can’t leave, he said.
Each time Erica Holt has been arrested, she’s been released into her father’s care within a few hours of being taken into custody, official said. She’s never faced real criminal charges because of her actions, records show.
But it was Erica who inspired Burkhart to make changes to the sheriff’s department’s protocols.
Police officers get some training on how to calm a situation that’s getting out of control, but they don’t have much training specifically on how best to interact with people with mental illnesses, Burkhart said.
So, he arranged for Detective Sgt. Bridget Foy to attend a crisis-intervention seminar; she successfully completed the class last month.
Foy said, at its most basic, the crisis-intervention training taught her to look at emergency calls about a disruptive person differently. She now knows officers can’t rush to these situations assuming that a crime has been committed, as they do with most other calls, she said.
They have to be calm and ready to sooth rather than discipline, she said.
There are certain things officers can look for to help determine if the person they’ve met is suffering from a mental illness or disability, Foy said. If the person can’t maintain eye contact, isn’t communicating clearly or seems to be experiencing extreme mood swings or physical ticks, for example, there could be an underlying problem that isn’t always obvious, she said.
It’ll be Foy’s job to teach local officers to look for these sorts of clues when interacting with people during emergency calls. It’s not an officer’s job to diagnosis an individual; but knowing the characteristics of mental illness will give them a better idea of whether someone needs help or punishment, she said.
Sometimes, people with mental disabilities or disorders commit crimes and need to be held accountable for their actions, said Greenfield Police assistant chief Maj. Matt Holland, who will undergo crisis-intervention training this year.
In August 2016, a Greenfield man was accused of sexually assaulting a woman living at his group home. The defendant was 55 but had the mindset of a 14-year-old, officials said. The victim was nonverbal and functioned as a 3-year-old, according to court records.
Prosecutors say the accusations brought against the man were too severe to ignore, and they charged him with rape. He sat in jail for months while court officials worked to determine if he was fit to stand trial. Eventually, prosecutors and the man’s defense attorney reached an agreement: they’d put the case of hold while the defendant completed counseling aimed at helping him better understand his actions.
So if investigators meet a person with a mental illness who they believe needs to face criminal charges, they’ll turn their findings over to the prosecutor’s office to make a final determination, Holland said — just like they would with any other individual.
But first, they’ll make sure the person has gotten the help they need, whether that means escorting the person to a local hospital for a medical evaluation or putting them in contact with groups, like Mental Health Partners of Hancock County, that can connect them with further assistance, he said.
Foy and Holland will meet through the remainder of the year to create a local crisis-intervention training program. They anticipate being able to train their fellow officers after the start of the new year and annually thereafter.
That prospect has residents like Joe Holt feeling encouraged.
He’s learned from Burkhart about the upcoming training sessions, and he thinks they’ll be a great advantage to the community. He hopes that over time, the officers come to better know the people with disabilities they might interact with, maybe even memorize their triggers and what calms them.
A soda from the local gas station coupled with a peaceful tone usually does the trick with his daughter, Erica, Joe Holt said. One day, maybe, an officer will hear her address over the radio and know to just swing by the corner store, grab a fountain drink and be ready to climb out of the car with a smile.
Erica would love that, Joe Holt said. She’d cool right off.
“Sometimes, the officers who come are great; sometimes, they aren’t so patient,” he said. “I wish they could step back, take the badge off a second. She’ll calm down. You just have to know how to talk to her.”