Northeast Ohio police are increasingly turning to new methods when responding to people experiencing a mental-health crisis as police departments are shifting their training to better serve people who need their help.
Shannon Marcum has promised her son, Frankie, his favorite snack. He’s looking forward to some Kit-Kats. But as the baby faced but hulking 15-year-old sits at his kitchen table, his Asperger’s Syndrome makes it difficult for him to communicate. Shannon is encouraging Frankie to express how he feels when he sees police coming through the door at their home in Springfield Township.
“When you are really upset and you have a big meltdown and I have to call the EMS, is that scary for you?”
“What scares you about that? Are you afraid they’re going to take you somewhere you don’t want to go?”
“One time, do you remember when the police officer came and he had to go home afterward and change because you squirted toothpaste all over him?”
“Do you think it was to get him away from you?”
A bad day
Things like that only happen when Shannon says Frankie is having a really bad day -- about twice a year. But she fears what will happen as her son gets older and stronger.
“Sometimes I don’t even think he understands what’s being asked exactly. I definitely would see him maybe not understanding a police officer or not answering correctly. Luckily we’ve never had that problem yet. But [I’m] definitely always concerned about it turning violent or even deadly. And I’m not talking about Frankie being deadly.”
That’s what the family of Tanisha Anderson says happened in 2014. Cleveland police responded to a call to the schizophrenic woman’s home and reportedly restrained her, face down. The 40-year-old appeared to stop breathing and never regained consciousness.
Last year in the Summit County Jail, an inmate with mental health issues, Anthony Jones, died after being restrained by deputies.
“About 10 percent of all police calls are for something having to do with persons with mental illness. Yet the police were given virtually no training in what to do with folks who are mentally ill. We spend a 40-hour week teaching police officers that they need to handle folks with mental illness somewhat differently: how to de-escalate and that sort of thing.”
Getting the training
Police officers in Northeast Ohio usually must have two years of experience on-the-job to take the week-long CIT training. They also should be willing to go to the training – in most cases.
“I went kind of kicking and screaming at the time," recalls Sgt. Andrew Suvada of the Streetsboro Police Department. "It’s a volunteer program, but my chief at the time said, ‘You’re going and there’s no way around it.’”
Suvada went through the training in 2007. Even on his first day back from the classes, he wasn’t sure if he’d learned anything useful. Then, the calls started coming in.
“I was told that we had a suicidal person up in one of our trailer parks. We went up there [and] come to find out that after speaking to him that he was going through a divorce. Kind of at the end of his rope. And through the training, I had some avenues I could point him in that direction. We put him into some treatment. I did some follow-up with the family and they said he was an alcoholic and had some other things going on. And they thanked me [and] basically said that I saved his life that day.”
By the end of that first day back, he started to believe in the power of CIT. Suvada has since been highly decorated for his work as a teacher and practitioner of CIT. He says the goal is to train officers to humanize themselves, while still staying alert.
“They teach you in the class to communicate and to lower your voice and drop your stance. With all the stuff I wear on a day-to-day basis – it’s hard. But [I] try to make myself as small as possible. Me, personally, when I get into those things, I try to smile, try to be open. Hold my hands open.”
CIT also includes scenario training, awareness of autism and bullying-related issues, and learning the agencies where officers can take someone in crisis -- instead of prison. But there is a barrier to getting training for every police officer.
Reaching every officer
Lt. Mike Woody spent 25 years with the Akron Police Department. He learned about CIT from officers in Memphis, where it originated, and he brought it to Northeast Ohio in 2000.
“Small departments, sometimes they have to pay an officer time-and-a-half to take this officer’s place while he takes a 40-hour training. That can be difficult. The State of Ohio, though, [has] supplied funds where if you’ve never sent an officer to a CIT course from your department, they’ll give you $1,000 to cover the overtime for an officer that has to take their place.”
Woody says about 11,000 officers have gone through the courses in all but one of Ohio’s 88 counties.
In Northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Police Department was found in 2014 to have used excessive force in handling people with mental health issues. Last year, the department adopted new crisis intervention policies for encounters with mentally ill people.
In Summit County, a task force is studying ways to improve conditions in the jail. But there are those who say the training has to go beyond the police. Dr. Fred Frese says it’s important to get the training for others who interface with the public.
“I was with the head of the Social Security Administration. I was telling him about the police training program. He immediately said to me, ‘We need that for all our Social Security offices.’ That was a few years ago. It didn’t happen – yet. But it has been tried in other areas: EMS, forest rangers, firemen. We’ve actually had judges being trained.”
Back to Springfield
But back in Springfield Township, where Shannon Marcum sometimes calls for help when her son, Frankie, is having a bad day, the department has 15 patrol officers. Five of them have gone through CIT. Marcum says she never knew she could ask for a CIT officer when needed. She has just always called 911 and asked for help.
“One time – it wasn’t a police officer, but it was an EMS guy. He had never been here. He was younger. He thought I had called the police to punish Frankie and make him behave. And I was just thinking, ‘You have no clue. Have you had any training about people like this?’
"It just made me feel offended that he would think I’m just calling because my son’s out-of-control and I wanted the police to straighten him out or something.”
Springfield Township says the department would like to get CIT training for more of its officers. They agree that de-escalation techniques help the people they serve, but also appreciate the fact that it will keep their officers safer.
Dr. Fred Frese and his wife, Penny, worked with their daughter, Clare, to produce a video on mental health. Mrs. Frese discusses the film's origins below.
The WKSU series: “Navigating the Path to Mental Health"
Part I (May 29): Achieving Acceptance: Overcoming Stigma on the Path to Mental Health. One out of five Americans, this year, will experience a mental health disorder. Yet, for all its prevalence, many people dealing with mental health crises still face stigma and shame.
Part II (June 5): Mental-health care can be hard to access in much of Ohio, especially away from the larger cities. This installment looks at the challenges along the way to finding and getting mental-health services.
Part III (June 12): Mental-health treatment evolves through meds, mindfulness and motivational interviewing.
Part IV (June 19): Mental-health treatment can be expensive, and the financial incentives may be a barrier, rather than incentive.
Part V (June 26): Police and the courts are increasingly on the front-line of mental-health care, and are getting better training to do it.
Part VI (July 3): Pink-slipped, a personal story
Join us tomorrow, June 27, for a community forum on mental health at the Akron-Summit County Public Library at 7 p.m.