law and mental illness

This four-part series will look at the struggle of providing care for the mentally ill who are facing legal challenges.

The number of people suffering from mental illness going into the criminal justice system is mind numbing.

According to a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Crisis Intervention Team report, “Each year, 2 million jail bookings involve a person with mental illness. 15% of men and 30% of women in local jails have a serious mental illness. One in four people killed in officer-involved shootings have a serious mental illness.”

Gila County is not immune from the tragedy these numbers illustrate.

This is the first part in a series of articles looking at the continuing challenge of providing a means for those with mental illness in northern Gila County to get help rather than be incarcerated.

A few years ago, an article in the Payson Roundup looked at several law enforcement encounters with mentally ill residents.

At the time, northern Gila County law enforcement officers had confronted individuals in mental health crises at least three times since 2008. All three incidents had different outcomes:

• A man, believed by family to be suffering from a PTSD attack, met officers responding to a welfare check armed and was killed when the law enforcement personnel feared for their lives.

• A six-hour standoff in late 2015 between law enforcement and a woman ended peacefully after the Payson Police Department Special Response Team was called in to use its negotiation training to get the woman to leave her residence.

• Police were dispatched for another woman threatening suicide in early 2008. Someone had alerted them the woman had guns in her home and an attack dog. While discussing how to handle the dog, one officer said he “noticed a silhouette of a person on the elevated east deck.”

The officers trained their guns and flashlights on the figure and saw the woman bent over at the waist with her forearms on the deck railing and hands together.

The officers realized she had a gun pointing directly at them.

The woman was told to drop her weapon, but the command was ignored.

The two officers, fearing for their lives, fired at the woman, one fired twice and the other fired once. The woman was hit once in the head. She survived and the officers were exonerated of any wrongdoing.

“Law enforcement must now act as first responders for the nation’s mental health and addictions crisis. And yet a majority of officers are not trained on how to safely interact with people experiencing a mental health or addictions crisis, leaving both the officer and our community members vulnerable to tragedy,” states an October 2017 article on Mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Yet the claim of the article that a majority of officers are not trained on how to safely interact with people experiencing a mental health or addictions crisis is not the prevailing trend in this area. The Payson Police Department has officers specially trained to talk people in crisis down. Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd said all his officers learn to identify mental health issues in their initial training and they continue to receive education on the matter when classes can be found to which the GCSO can afford to send them.

Patty Wisner, NAMI Payson program director, said, “Poor outcomes can happen when law enforcement is called to deal with a person with mental illness. When a person is unstable and in psychosis, they are not able to respond rationally and follow the directions or orders from law enforcement. This can lead to an escalation that tragically can result in the death of the very person family members have called law enforcement to help.”

She advised, “If a family member calls 911 for help with a mental health crisis, it is very important that he or she communicates to the dispatcher that the person has mental illness. This is critical information for the deputy or officer.”

Wisner explained NAMI and NAMI Payson, the local affiliate of NAMI, support Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) as a strategy for improving outcomes when law enforcement interacts with people with mental illness.

“The goals of CIT are to improve the safety of the responding officer and help the mentally ill get access to treatment rather than place them in jail. Part of CIT is for law enforcement to participate in a 40-hour class about mental illness, different perspectives and resources, but the program is intended to be a partnership between law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals, individuals with mental illness, families and advocates. The CIT program model has a solid history of success in communities that participate.”

Wisner said NAMI Payson supports local efforts to divert persons with mental illness from the criminal justice system. This includes the work of the Gila County Criminal Justice and Mental Health Coalition.

“Under the leadership of Chief Steve Lessard of Gila County Probation, this coalition, which includes representatives of NAMI Payson, has identified resources and gaps at each intercept in the community that a person with mental illness can be involved. Identifying and prioritizing these gaps leads to a community-based solution.”

She said NAMI Payson also supports the Restorative Court, which helps connect people with mental illness to resources and aims to reduce recidivism and contacts with law enforcement.

“NAMI Payson believes that supportive communities aid greatly in the recovery of persons with mental illness. So many of our community’s greatest social challenges often have ties to mental illness. These include addiction, incarceration, family dysfunction, homelessness, self-harm and suicide. By providing supports that help those in our community affected by mental illness, we improve the health of our entire community,” Wisner concluded.

Future articles will explore “The Front Line” — how local law enforcement deals with incidents involving the mentally ill; “The Courts” — the options prosecutors and judges have when mental illness is a contributing factor in a taking a matter to court; “Training” — what options have been made available over the years to law enforcement officers and do those need to be changed; “Solutions” — what can be done to make a difference.

Contact the reporter at tmcquerrey@payson.com

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