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POLICING MENTAL HEALTH Give officers more clarity

Omaha World-Herald - 9/18/2017

For police, dealing with human behavior can be unpredictable, often volatile work. Policing people with mental illness increases the risks to both officers and those in crisis.

Officers have effective options to help them, including specialized mental health units and teams of trained mental health practitioners who can be deployed as needed.

But those tools won't work unless police leadership requires and reinforces the appropriate training and unless officers exercise the judgment to use the help available.

Consider the example of Zachary Bearheels, the young man who was off his medication for schizophrenia and died in June after Omaha police confronted him outside a convenience store.

Four of the officers involved were fired or recommended for firing after an investigation concluded they failed to follow department policies and procedures.

One of the four is facing second-degree assault charges for using a stun gun 12 times. Another was ticketed for misdemeanor third-degree assault for punching Bearheels 13 times. The two others did not properly handle the incident, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has said, including one who had received specialized mental health training.

Douglas County makes a team of mental health practitioners available to local law enforcement agencies 24/7, but the team wasn't tapped in the Bearheels incident.

Bearheels' death should spur departments to thoroughly review training and policies involving officer response when confronting a person in a mental health crisis.

It's not clear whether officers have a strong grasp of who and when to call for help.

The Omaha Police Department also needs to do a better job of documenting when officers encounter people in crisis. The number of formal reports filed appears artificially low. Shortcomings in training would be easier to identify with accurate data.

Human nature needs to be considered in these policy reviews, however. Officers aren't counselors. Recognizing the signs of someone in crisis is one thing. De-escalating such situations often requires the help of a mental health professional.

It's troubling to hear, as one officer speculated, that officers might be reluctant to call in such help because of how time-consuming those calls can be.

But the problems go beyond police training and policy changes.

Bearheels' death and similar tragedies should reinvigorate public debate about how to address gaps in the mental health care system, including establishing more short-term placement options for people in crisis.

State lawmakers should acknowledge the need for next steps in the state's mental health reform efforts and make sure behavioral health funding receives the priority it deserves, even in difficult budget times.

Federal lawmakers, who have talked about the problems for decades, need to act.

The front lines of American mental health care should be staffed by treatment providers, not police officers. It's time to send in some reinforcements.


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