Mental health crises part of cops’ job

Poughkeepsie Journal Monday, October 17, 2011
By Shantal Parris Riley

They’re often the first to arrive on the scene in a mental health crisis.

Police and other law enforcement serve as public protectors – but, at a moment’s notice, when confronted with a situation involving a mentally disturbed person, they become social workers.

“Mental health issues are  prevalent on the job,” Town of Poughkeepsie Police Chief Thomas Mauro said. “They occur with regular frequency.”

Regional police are preparing for an upcoming training series, titled “Responding to Situations Involving Emotionally Disturbed People: An In-Service Curriculum Orientation,” to be held in Orange County in February.

The curriculum, offered through the state Division of Criminal Justice Services and Office of Mental Health, will provide police with training on suicide assessment and intervention and a host of topics covering mental illness. The training course is designed to supplement the mandated training provided to police recruits.

From incidents of road rage and driving while intoxicated, to emotionally charged incidents of domestic abuse, police are faced with issues of mental health daily, Mauro said.

“Sometimes, there’s a conflict between our role as law-enforcement officers and the secondary social work aspect of law enforcement,” he said. “You’re trying to draw a balance between your responsibilities to maintain public safety and trying to do what is in the best interest of the person you’re dealing with.

“The difficulty can often be with communication.”

Mauro, who has decades of training in suicide intervention, crisis negotiation and stress management, said “talk tactics” often involve putting time into a conversation to calm or slow a person down.

Town of Poughkeepsie police had training in 2010 on “de-escalation techniques” to include listening with empathy and focusing on behavior, not the person.

This and other training was put to critical use in August 2010 when a 22-year-old man threatened to jump from a ledge of the sixth floor parking lot at Saint Francis Hospital after escaping from family members who drove him there for a mental health evaluation.

“I knew it could have possibly been a fatal jump,” said Detective Patrick Nesbitt, a trained crisis intervention specialist and negotiator with the Town of Poughkeepsie police.

Nesbitt said a conversation began about 18 feet away from the distraught man, with a handful of trained police inching their way toward him over the course of 4 1/2 hours.

“We took one step at a time,” Nesbitt said. “He was, for the most part, extremely agitated and uncooperative. I was doing most of the talking.”

Nesbitt said he tried to level with the man.

“I spoke to him about the fact that he might not die,” he said. “I said, ‘You could wind up in a wheelchair.’ ”

When the man told them he was thirsty, the team decided to make a move.

“I said if you want the water, you’ve got to take it.”

A few seconds later, police were able to grab the man and pull him to safety.

Nesbitt said he drew on all of his training that day. “You need to make a connection,” he said. “If you can empathize, you can be effective.”

According to an October Division of Criminal Justice Services memo, “Nearly one in 10 calls to the police involve a person in a mental health crisis. … Police officers are often the first, and sometimes may be the only responders to crises involving emotionally disturbed persons.”

In 2010, town police responded to 252 calls for mental health emergencies. From January to September of this year, the number was 219.

The Dutchess County  Sheriff’s Office responded to 194 emotionally disturbed person calls in 2010. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, the Sheriff’s Office responded to 123 calls.

“The actual number of responses to mental health emergencies is much higher,” said Sgt. Shawn Castano, supervisor of the Sheriff’s Office training unit, explaining calls are often entered into police databases as domestic incidents, for example.

“There’s certainly been an increase in calls pertaining to people experiencing mental health issues,” he said, pointing to the troubled economy as a factor. “People are under a lot financial stress, they’re losing their jobs – they may have some sort of underlying mental health issues not diagnosed by a doctor.”

Under the state’s Mental Hygiene Law, police may take into custody and transport to a hospital or psychiatric facility “any person who appears to be mentally ill and is conducting himself or herself in a manner which is likely to result in serious harm to the person or others.”

Crime Beat, which explores law enforcement issues and cases worked by police in the mid-Hudson Valley, appears each Monday. To suggest a topic, call 845-437-4834. Reach Shantal Parris Riley at sdriley@poughkeepsiejournal.com or 845-437-4809.