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What Is Law Enforcement's Role In Mental Health Calls?

photo of Tanisha Anderson
Tanisha Anderson (left) died in 2014 after police restrained her face down. She was a schizophrenic. Her mother, Cassandra Johnson (at podium), has pushed for better training for police who respond to mental health calls.

The conversation around defunding police has included debate on whether law enforcement should be responding to calls involving a person’s mental health.

In Northeast Ohio, there have been incidents – some fatal -- involving police response to people experiencing a mental health crisis. But there are ways mental health experts and police are working together.

On a November night in 2014, Tanisha Anderson’s family called Cleveland Police for help. Cassandra Johnson, Tanisha’s Mother, says the 37-year-old had tried repeatedly to head out into the cold weather without appropriate clothing. When police arrived, they restrained the schizophrenic woman, face down. Anderson stopped breathing and never regained consciousness.

“She had no weapon. She didn’t even fight them.

“She became a criminal and she was not a criminal. She was a person with a mental disorder and she was treated like somebody that had a weapon.”

That’s how Johnson described the situation just weeks later, at a press conference asking the state to pass a law that would require every police officer be trained in appropriate ways to deal with mentally ill people.

"She would still be here if they would have just handled it in a different way.”

Anderson’s aunt, the Rev. Diane Wheeler, said at the time that police needed to reassess the way they deploy resources.

“The police department needs to reset crime-fighting priorities and strategies to make those strategies consistent with the needs of our community at large.”

Johnson later reached a settlement with the city, and the two officers involved were never charged.

Changing procedures
In the years since, Cleveland has mandated new procedures for responding to a person in-crisis, and sent hundreds of officers to Crisis Intervention Team training – also known as CIT. It’s a program that first came to the region 20 years ago, in Summit County. Jeff Futo is a 23-year-veteran of law enforcement, and currently serves with the Kent State University Police Department. He’s also the statewide coordinator for CIT training.

photo of Jeff Futo
Jeff Futo is the statewide coordinator for Crisis Intervention Team training. He says the program involves teaching de-escalation techniques, and also creating a partnerships among law enforcement, community members, and mental health resources.

“We talk about de-escalation and active listening skills. And when you’re communicating with somebody, what are the questions you ask? How do you respond when somebody tells you they’re having suicidal thoughts, they’re hearing voices, or that they’re seeing things?”

The 40-hour course is not just designed to give officers the skills to communicate with someone in-crisis. Futo says it also connects them to community resources.

“They get to talk with their emergency facility people. They get to hear from some case management [and] maybe the suicide coalition in their community.”

Police or social workers?
One of those resources is Akron-based Community Support Services, which provides behavioral healthcare. Operations Director Keith Stahl says the conversation about removing police from mental health calls is “a thorny issue.”

“I wouldn’t want to see a situation where social workers are going out to restrain and do some of these types of things – I think there is value in having that done by a separate entity. And so aspects of the current system do work well.”

Social workers like Stahl often present at the training.

“I think expanding CIT – having social workers able to go out on a much greater frequency with the police – would be tremendously helpful.”

Expanding that requires more funding and a greater pool of trained specialists, according to Ruth Simera. She’s executive director of the Coordinating Centers of Excellence in the Psychiatry Department at NEOMED medical college in Rootstown.

“In some communities, the co-responder model might have a law enforcement officer partnered with a mental health professional. In some communities, it might be mental health professionals and a peer. So, someone who has lived experience and has now been trained to respond to other peers in the community.”

Peer-to-peer services
One person who fits that description is Lisa Marie Griffin. She’s lived in Akron for almost all of her 58 

photo of Lisa Marie Griffin
Lisa Marie Griffin of Akron says its important to have the officers with mental health training answer calls for people in-crisis .

years. She suffers from depression and is bipolar. She also struggled with substance abuse until getting sober in 2007. Now, she’s one of the peers that Ruth Simera described: speaking at CIT trainings in Ohio to offer advice for officers who will respond to people in-crisis.

“When they’re taking their training, I let them know, it wasn’t so much the officer himself, it was the uniform and the tone in the voice during my crisis.

“A regular police officer that has not been trained -- he’s already overloaded by the family, the call, the person, and the surroundings. Whereas if he’s trained, he knows to take a deep breath, listen to what he’s being told, and who to deal with first.”

But despite being a proponent of the training, Griffin admits it’s not a magic wand that can transform every officer in the country and solve the question of whether police should be called for mental health crises.

“They were trying to make CIT mandatory for the officers – I don’t believe in that. I think they should all have some kind of mental health training -- [but] CIT? No. If you make someone do something they don’t want to do, they’re not going to put their heart in it. That’s a form of aggravation. But if they’re volunteering to get involved, their heart is in it.”

And in her opinion, those are the officers who are always needed when a call involves a mental health issue. 

Dr. Mark Munetz, Professor and Chair Emeritus of Psychiatry at NEOMED, recently wrote an editorial on this topic.

Kabir Bhatia joined WKSU as a Reporter/Producer and weekend host in 2010. While a Kent State student, Bhatia served as a WKSU student assistant, working in the newsroom and for production.