NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Most U.S. police receive little or no training on how best to handle crises involving the mentally ill despite the growing frequency of such encounters and the fatal results in a number of recent cases.
Although more departments have added or expanded training in recent years as they faced greater scrutiny and litigation, the vast majority offer at best a maximum of 40 hours and are not reaching enough officers, according to police and mental health advocates.
Last weekend’s Chicago police slaying of 19-year-old college student Quintonio LeGrier, who relatives said had suffered from mental issues, has raised questions about the training of officers who are routinely thrust into tense situations with people who may be affected by varying mental disorders, or drug and alcohol abuse.
“We’re asking the police to fill the gaps that have been created by inadequate mental health resources,” said Ron Honberg, national director for policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“It seems sadly ironic, tragically ironic when you call 911 about someone having a heart attack, they send a trained EMT professional, but when you call about someone in a psychotic crisis, a psychotic episode, they send police,” he added.
The Chicago shooting also prompted calls from Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a review of the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team and improved guidance for officers handling cases where the mental health of a person is a factor.
Mentally ill people have been shot to death in recent years by police in Texas, California, Colorado and Virginia. Americans with severe mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians, an advocacy group found.
With no national requirements on training recruits on de-escalation and crisis intervention, the average is just eight hours on each, according to a survey released in August 2015 by the Police Executive Research Forum.
“Society has turned police officers into psychologists with guns, and they don’t have the training for that,” said Scott Johnson, a Washington state attorney.
Johnson represents Ryan Flanagan, a veteran officer with the police department in Pasco, Washington, who resigned in July after he and two patrolmen fatally shot an unarmed Mexican orchard worker who battled depression, homelessness and drug abuse.
Flanagan had only been trained to offer a mentally distressed person a phone number for a county healthcare worker, or detain the suspect until one arrived, said Johnson.
Pasco Police Department spokesman Ken Roske said Flanagan’s training encouraged officers to get mentally ill people a “professional intervention as soon as possible.” But he added that officers also received training on how to interact with the mentally ill, including sessions with state and local mental health and veterans officials.
In Seattle, the police department since 2012 has implemented court-ordered reforms to address what the Justice Department has called a pattern of excessive force that often arose during encounters with the mentally ill or drug-addled suspects.
Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said the department now has training protocols that include sessions on how to de-escalate a violent scene and calm down a distressed person, and has imposed 40-hour certification training for specialized officers that get dispatched to a majority of such calls.
Many in the law enforcement community want more training, especially as the burden of the severely mentally ill has shifted in recent decades to police departments from public hospitals.
“The better trained the officer, the safer they are and the more effective they are,” said Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations. He said police often did not receive enough training because of the cost.
Law enforcement encounters with the mentally ill have soared in recent decades as the number of public psychiatric hospital beds plummeted to about 17 per 100,000 people in 2005 from 340 per 100,000 in the 1950s, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
The center has estimated there are almost 8 million Americans or 3.3 percent of U.S. adults with severe mental illness. About half those people are untreated, resulting in about 216,000 homeless and 400,000 incarcerations.
The 1987 killing of a mentally ill man in Memphis, Tennessee, led to the creation of the highly regarded Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, program, which brings together law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency departments and individuals with mental illness and their families.
About 3,000 police departments have received its intensive training. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country.
Sam Cochran, a CIT trainer and retired Memphis police officer, recalled using some of the skills with a mentally ill man who was creating a disturbance.
“My first priority was to lower his voice,” said Cochran, who covered his ears to indicate the noise hurt and then moved back from the man. “I could not outshout him, so I had to use the tone of my voice, which was very quiet, and my body language.”
Reporting by Jilian Mincer in New York and Eric M. Johnson in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney