Police training valuable, but more is needed

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November 17, 2003 // UPDATED 11:07 am - April 30, 2007
By: Robyn Repya
Robyn Repya

Advocates, mayor call to increase police training to better work with people with mental disabilities

In June 2000, police officers responded to a noise complaint in a southwest Minneapolis apartment building. They didn't know that the tenant, Barbara Schneider, had a mental illness. Alarmed by police, Schneider armed herself with a kitchen knife; officers shot and killed her in self-defense.

Schneider lived independently, but the building manager reportedly told 911 operators that she believed Schneider had a mental illness when reporting the noise disturbance.

Schneider was one of three people with a mental illness Minneapolis police shot that year, spurring the Department to adopt their own version of the Memphis-based Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program (see sidebar).

As a rule, the Police Department makes sure 20 percent of officers have completed the voluntary course and that one

CIT-trained officer is on duty per shift for each precinct. However, many mental health advocates say that's not enough. Police interact with people with mental

disabilities in three main ways:

  • in the community, during mental health crisis interventions wherein the person with a mental illness is being taken to

    the hospital and police assist;

  • as perpetrators of crime (they are usually low-level, nuisance crime offenders); and
  • as victims.

    Not all interactions between the police and people with mental disabilities make the news -- when reporters talked with people with mental disabilities, they found a range of reactions to the police, from friendliness to fear. Minneapolis resident Jim Muelener, who has brain damage, said he grew up in Northeast idolizing a local policeman. He said he was "the best cop in the world," because he tried to help people.

    To this day, he said, he has a pleasant relationship with police, "Whenever they go by, I wave to them. I am friendly with the cops right now. No bad experiences."

    Other people with mental disabilities -- including John Rischmiller and Mike Davenport, who were profiled in the two previous issues of Skyway -- reported either no or neutral interactions with police, as well as some negative experiences.

    Crisis calls In the past three years, Minneapolis police responded to more than 3,000 calls to assist in mental health crises, most involving people experiencing a psychotic break or other potentially dangerous state.

    Theresa Carufel, communications director of Tasks Unlimited, 2419 Nicollet Ave. S., a nonprofit that helps people with a mental illness find housing and employment, said all officers should be prepared to deal with people in the grip of a mental health crisis.

    "Police are taught to kill," Carufel said. "When people [police are called to handle] take their clothes off and start babbling, [the police] need to be trained in the symptoms and know how to deal with them."

    However, Sgt. Ron Bellendier, direct supervisor of training, said it shouldn't be forced on officers. He said the training is a matter of personal choice, like deciding what kind of cop you'd like to be, whether it's traffic or S.W.A.T.

    Carufel said the most important thing police can do in situations with people in crisis is to stay calm and speak slowly.

    Janet Fisher, a Minneapolis resident with a mental illness and a developmental disability, said that the last time she needed to be taken to the hospital for a psychotic episode, the police who were on-hand to assist staff and medical techs unnecessarily frightened her.

    Fisher said she could hear the officers referring to her in the third-person and asking the techs if they should handcuff her -- even though she was obviously cooperating.

    "They could've been more supportive," Fisher said.

    "It scared me; I hadn't been in an ambulance in three or four years. I didn't know what was happening. They could just tell me they're trying to help."

    Even if he needed it, Mike Davenport, who works at the Hennepin County Government Center, said he would not go to the police for help. Before being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Davenport said he had had a few run-ins with the law. Although he said he did not want to go into specifics, Davenport said the encounters left him distrusting and fearful of police.

    "I understand they serve a purpose, I just prefer they serve it away from me."

    This level of fear and distrust, heightened during crisis episodes, make interactions among police and people with mental illnesses dangerous for all involved.

    As offenders Hennepin County District Court Judge Richard Hopper presides over the Community Court docket, featuring a specialized calendar reserved for alleged offenders with a mental illness or developmental disability.

    He said people with a mental disability often come before him for livability crimes, such as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, public urination -- but mostly it's for low-level drinking offenses.

    Hopper said most people he sees in his specialized court are homeless -- abandoned by the mental health system. He said homeless people with a mental illness are drawn to urban areas, and their illness is typically linked to their offenses.

    For example, he said, many offenders substitute proper medication with alcohol -- either because the psychotropic drugs are too expensive or have undesirable side effects -- leading to their police encounters.

    Hopper said the unpredictability of dealing with mental illness' effects makes even such seemingly minor encounters more delicate. "Every one of these innocent situations can explode into something very tragic," he said.

    It's these explosions that are captured in the headlines. For example, in 2002, Abu Kassim Jeilani, a 28-year-old Somali native with a mental illness, would not put down his machete when approached by police. After the officers' tasers failed to stun him and Jeilani continued to swing his weapon, police shot and killed him.

    As victims However, many argue that people with mental disabilities aren't typically crime perpetrators, but victims. "They're more vulnerable than the general population," Carufel said.

    City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), a former Police Department civilian crime-prevention specialist, said he's seen vulnerable adults fall victim to criminal predators.

    He had a case wherein a mentally ill person's home was taken over by drug dealers who used it as a place to sell from. "A lot of times, [people with mental illness are] victimized and drawn into criminal behavior," he said.

    It should be noted that these scenarios -- Schneider, Jeilani, low-level offenders and people who have their apartments taken over -- involve people living independently or on the street.

    Though police officers can attest in a police report that a suspect appeared "disturbed" or to be a "vulnerable adult," they do not keep track of whether the victims or perpetrators of crime live in supportive housing, according to 1st (Downtown) Precinct Crime-Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger.

    Anecdotally, of the five people with a mental disability Skyway talked to, none reported being victimized or committing a crime.

    More work to do Advocates and the police agree that a long-term system should be in place to assure people with mental disabilities constant support, thereby reducing police interactions.

    Ada Townsend, a residential team leader in a southwest Minneapolis neighborhood group home and a block club leader, says a more cohesive community effort is necessary.

    Townsend said state and county agencies work with her staff to handle any potential mental health situation that could lead to a crisis call -- but the city police are never included until they show up at the escalated, potentially dangerous scene. "The Police Department is just not part of the team," she said.

    Townsend said city police should be included in roundtable discussions, so all agencies can work as a team to better work with residents with a mental disability.

    Carufel said an important part of working together is the city's commitment to mental health issues, one she feels City Hall lacks.

    In the midst of a new police chief search, Mayor R.T. Rybak put together a civilian board to help select candidates, but Carufel said no one on the board represents the mental health community.

    Mark Anderson, a former lobbyist on mental health issues who now heads up the Barbara Schneider Foundation -- an advocacy organization dedicated to improving health crisis response and preventing mental health crises -- agreed: "They just don't seem interested in having a mental health advocate there. A new chief really needs some background in dealing with these kinds of issues."

    Rybak said that's his goal, too. He said the panel helping to search for the next chief wasn't meant to represent every demographic, and he's talked with community members, including officers who've had the crisis training and helped people with a mental illness in crisis situations.

    "I hear the stories that don't wind up on the news," he said. "I hear about how the officers stopped someone from jumping off a bridge or got them to drop their weapon -- [the police] save their life."

    He said he's very committed to maintaining and increasing initiatives to help people with mental disabilities in the community, such as police crisis training.

    "We need to make sure that training is spread throughout the entire Department and that's something I'll bring to the next police chief," Rybak said.