Retrieved 2/22/08 from ProJo.com (the Providence Journal, Providence, R.I. )
Andy Rosenzweig: Police and mental-health pros must partner
01:00 AM EST on Saturday, February 23, 2008
ON FEB. 12 in Pawtucket an emotionally disturbed young man named Jason Swift was killed by the police. None of us can know the danger that confronted the officers, and the fears that they and Jason Swift were feeling. An investigation will ensue and if history tells us anything, the likelihood is that though the results were tragic, the police officers will be found to have acted lawfully.
About 40 years ago my partner and I stood in front of a large naked man who had shaved every hair from his body. His mother stood off to the side pleading with us not to hurt him. I was in my mid-twenties, my partner a bit older, but neither of us were trained or equipped to handle the mentally ill man. I won’t speak for my partner, but I was scared. Somehow we talked him into the rear of our patrol car (a violation of existing New York Police Department regulations) and drove him to Bronx State Hospital, the local facility that received “psychos” in those years. Not too many years later an evolving NYPD improved their training and policies regarding the handling of the mentally and emotionally disturbed, which included changing the common and institutionalized phrase “psycho” to emotionally disturbed person, or “EDP.” Leadership matters and it often starts with language, which helps shape attitudes.
The investigation surrounding the events that led to Jason Swift’s death is appropriate. However, what is not appropriate is the disregard our municipal and state officials sometimes have for the plight of the mentally ill and the police, who often find themselves in tense and dangerous confrontations. It is too late for Jason and his mother, Betty, and the rest of their family. But there are training and model policies available that can shift how the police respond to these dangerous assignments, that dramatically reduce violent encounters, and result in those most in need getting help.
Commonly called the “Memphis Model,” the Crisis Intervention Team concept was implemented close to 20 years ago and has grown to a national movement. Simply put, it creates a partnership between the police and mental-health clinicians, and includes 40 hours of training for officers, accompanied by a new department policy that is inclusive and collaborative. It’s a policy and practice that eschews the traditional parochial and insular attitudes that sometimes exist in public service, and promotes partnership between police officers, dispatchers (who are most often the first point of contact) and clinicians. When officers and mental-health workers partner at the scene of a disturbance that involves a person who is not seeing the world the way most of us do, the result is most often a peaceful resolution that includes an immediate referral and enhanced treatment.
There is another benefit to communities that adopt the Crisis Intervention Team model. CIT results in a better- equipped officer more able to handle almost any type of crisis or confrontation. Our police departments are still steeped in the old traditions of policing that inculcate officers with more of a paramilitary mindset, rather than preparing them for providing human service, which occupies the vast majority of their time.
I was pleased to have been asked to lead the introduction of CIT in Hartford several years ago. What turned out to be the last year of my police career was in certain ways the best, in large part because of my involvement with CIT officers of the Hartford Police Department, dispatchers and state mental-health workers who had the vision to see the benefits of the Memphis Model. In particular, the 50 officers who originally volunteered to be trained demonstrated to me the level of pride and caring that is the best side of the police profession.
Louise Pyers, who founded the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE) in 1997, a non-profit that is the advocate and trainer for cities throughout Connecticut, speaks with more authority than almost anyone. In that year, a relative was gravely injured by the police and, although he survived, the results were nonetheless tragic. Remarkably, Ms. Pyers and the officer who shot her relative now partner in providing training to the police on “suicide by cop.” She recognized the shared trauma of the event, and so did her injured relative, who she reports apologized to the police officer shortly after being shot.
Retired Capt. Ken Edwards of the New London Police Department, now an inspector and coordinator for domestic-violence programs with the Connecticut [State’s Attorney], has been the statewide law-enforcement advocate for CIT since 2004. He brought the training to Hartford and many other communities in Connecticut. When I asked him to succinctly describe CIT, he put it this way — “We train officers to identify what they’re dealing with, to contain it, and to slow it down; or in other words — to unlearn rushing in.” Captain Edwards was also quick to point out that it’s difficult to be critical and second-guess officers who respond to these calls and find themselves in dangerous situations, and sometimes the police will have no choice but to use deadly force.
Former Chief of Patrol Michael Fallon of the HPD, who is now the chief of the Capitol Police in Hartford, perhaps put it best when he said: “People are depending on us, and those folks need us more than anyone.” The chief had the vision to bring CIT to the Capitol Police and make sure that those who need us most and the rest of the citizens the police are sworn to protect are better served.
If any good is to come from the tragic ending of Jason Swift’s life, it will be calls for state and city officials in Rhode Island to demonstrate leadership so that citizens like Jason and their families get the intervention and help they have a right to expect, and so that officers have all the tools available to them, and won’t have to resort to using deadly force and then have to live with the weight of having taken a human life.
Andy Rosenzweig is a former deputy police chief in Hartford and Providence and former chief investigator for the New York County District Attorney’s Office. Before that, he was a lieutenant in the New York Police Department.