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Editorial: When police and the mentally ill collide, are there better ways?

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Posted: Saturday, February 8, 2014 12:00 am

Over the decades, and hastened by Ronald Reagan when he was California’s governor, we’ve largely shut down the monolithic hospitals for the mentally ill.

Now, instead of the massive “human warehouses” with their endless corridors, we have community-based programs. We have board and care homes tucked into our neighborhoods. We have people helped by medication and therapy who can live at home.

As our front-page story today by Jennifer Bonnett states, in 1955 there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. By 2005, there was just one bed for every 3,000 people.

That’s generally a positive thing, no doubt, reflecting breakthroughs in the treatment of the mentally ill.

Still, as those numbers show, there are many among us who are bruised or broken, or certainly in acute emotional pain.

That makes the job of being a police officer, already among the toughest anywhere, all the more difficult. Instead of those suffering from a psychotic disorder being locked up, they are largely out now, largely functional — and sometimes in crisis.

That means collisions between the mentally ill and police are more common. And those encounters, tragically for all concerned, often end badly.

That happened in Lodi on Jan. 25 when relatives called the police because they were concerned about Parminder Singh Shergill, 42. Shergill was a U.S. Army veteran who was dealing with depression and PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

What happened next is now in dispute: The police say Shergill charged two officers with a knife and they had no option but to shoot him. Those injuries proved fatal.

Family members maintain Mr. Shergill did not charge the officers and did not threaten them. They say his mental challenges were well-known to the police department.

The family’s attorney maintains the officers should have helped him instead of resorting to lethal force.

Now a multi-agency review is being conducted. There seems to be at least the possibility of a lawsuit being filed. The facts remain in dispute, so it is best not to unduly speculate. Yet it seems clear that the officers were placed in a difficult position. They were, after all, not responding to a bank robbery or high-speed chase. This instance, and so many like it, was not a profile of black and white, but a frantic rush of light and shadow.

They had weapons and badges, of course. But did they have the tools to deal with someone, apparently armed and apparently in a state of emotional agitation? Were there options limited by a lack of training in such areas?

Our empathy must extend to Mr. Shergill’s family members, too. Coping with a family member suffering from mental illness can be horribly testing and isolating. They apparently called the police hoping for some constructive intervention. In fact, Lodi officers had taken him to the VA hospital in Stockton on at least two occasions.

So the facts will be gathered and sifted, but there can be no doubt this is a terrible tragedy. A troubled but apparently quite decent man is dead. His family is devastated. Officers and their families are dealing with the trauma of this shooting.

It is only human nature, and perhaps journalistic instinct, to look for what might come from tragedy that is somehow positive. In that vein, we ask whether some of the specialized training programs outlined in Bonnett’s story today are models worth considering here.

The concept of a Crisis Intervention Team, pioneered by the Memphis Police Department, involves volunteer officers receiving specialized training. These officers are then dispatched to calls involving complex and face-to-face mental health crises.

Part of the rationale for the program seems relevant to what we are experiencing now in Lodi. From the Memphis Police Department website outlining CIT: “Traditional police methods, misinformation, and a lack of sensitivity cause fear and frustration for consumers and their families. Too often, officers respond to crisis calls where they felt at a disadvantage or were placed in a no-win situation.”

In Memphis, the CIT is credited with a decrease in the use of force by police and a reduction in police injuries relating to crisis events. Moreover, there has been a decrease in the arrest of mentally ill suspects and an effective diversion of such individuals into the mental health system. The NAMI chapter contends the approach is far more humane for both officers and subject, and has resulted in lives saved.

It would be presumptuous to say CIT or any other program would have saved the life of Parminder Singh Shergill and spared the Lodi officers the terrible trauma of a fatal shooting.

Yet, as a community, we would remiss, when exploring this painful world of light and shadow, not to ask:

Is there a better way?

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Welcome to the discussion.


  • Darrell McLaughlin posted at 11:25 pm on Tue, Feb 11, 2014.

    CDSFacilityServices Posts: 1

    This incident is sad and tragic. No one can see any angle of what occurred as a viewpoint of anything we want to be right, it is all just painful and we hope someday it will be preventable. Every police officer hates the concept of taking a life as much as the public hates hearing of a situation where one was lost. Many in public want to assess blame here and accuse there, but we can not truly understand the dangers faced by these officers on that day. We as a people know that so many factors came into consideration very rapidly as the dangerous variables presented themselves to these officers. We look closely at these things that we hate to see, and are quick to point out after the fact any opportunities for prevention that we may find.

    So many paint the picture of what is wrong with the system, and so many offer to detail the variables widely and obviously seen. I have never found it useful to have someone tell me what I already know. Those officers do not need to hear our second guessing. The families involved do not need to be made more aware of loss and suffering. We all know our vulnerable populations need more help, and we know that resources are just not at the levels needed.

    The facts are true, those with Mental Illness and Developmental Disability live wonderful full, productive, and independent lives, most never breaking the law or creating an unsafe environment. It is also true that for some, illness and confusion leads to acuity levels beyond their personal control. These individuals who find themselves breaking the laws due to the complexities of Mental Health Issues and Developmental Disability create a very complicated response need when crisis occurs. What is needed is not defensive division but resolutions and tools that can help.

    So here is what I can do to help. I own CDS Facility Services here in Lodi. We train and certify those who work in the mental health professions. The class we provide is called MABPRO - Crisis Negotiation & Intervention Training. I charge $60.00 per student for this class. I offer to teach and certify the entire Lodi Police Department for free. So that means Lodi has access to CIT Training for free.

    My back ground is in providing crisis response for those suffering from mental health issues. Over the last 24 years I have witnessed the police do their best to provide support to the consumers I serve. I have seen allot of compassion be demonstrated from our police officers. Some who responded just did not know how to help the situation. What is needed is more information not less information.....we have very well trained officers, who respect the training they have acquired. They are the ones who must respond to these crisis situations and they take the mandate of safety very seriously, so lets take their safety just as seriously and provide for them our support. The police are our line of defense and when these issues arise and safety is in question there is never a doubt as to who we should call. They represent the best of us and we should in turn represent the best for them.

    For more information about MABPRO goto www.mabpro.com.
    Please see us at www.CDSFacilityServices.com, or contact me @ 209-327-7677.

  • Harold Maio posted at 6:10 am on Sat, Feb 8, 2014.

    HAROLDAMAIO Posts: 1

    When police and the mentally ill collide

    It is difficult to know whether the above is a deliberate misrepresentation (it occurs several times in your editorial) or one of convenience. My generation knew it as “the” Blacks and ”the” Jews., and I did not know it was a deliberate misrepresentation. It took me many years to discover that.

    You intend something specific, the phrase you employ does not. Each time it appears a picture is fixed in readers’ minds. A picture you ought resent.

    You intend people in crisis because of a mental illness. Your intend that very specific small minority. Your words at times do, and at times do not.

    You ask if lives could be saved with Crisis Intervention Training. The answer is yes, it has proven itself many times, both with people with and people without a mental illness. Officers are becoming aware of people held hostage by a mental illness, though they have long been aware of other hostage situations. Resolution of both is the same. And, yes, sometimes people die.

    You employ another abstraction, “consumers.” You mean something specific, again, and employ a generality again. That term was not in the original training, nor ought that abstraction be in the minds of police officers: They are dealing with people. Lesson one is that. Officers, as yourselves, have to learn that.

    The training has several components, one is officer safety. That comes first. Second is concern for the individual himself, recognizing a mental illness may be involved and reacting accordingly. That means specifically: Do not act alone. It may well be unsafe. De-escalate the situation, if at all possible. Do not escalate it, much as with a person intent on jumping off a bridge or building. Avoid all noises, sirens for example may escalate the crisis in the persons’ mind.

    CIT saves lives, but it is actually only already learned lessons, applied differently.

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor


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