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When police understand mental illness, risks are lower


The Times-Picayune reports that Christopher Olmsted backed his pickup truck through a gate in his driveway, rammed a house across the street and hit two cars along Chartres Street on the morning he died. After his truck came to a stop, a bystander flagged down an off-duty New Orleans homicide detective. Police say the 60-year-old man hit the officer in the head with an object before he was shot to death. Investigators found that the shooting was justified.


Mr. Olmsted’s grieving family wonders whether he might be alive if police had responded differently to his emotional crisis last July (NOLA.com).


That is impossible to know, of course. The officer who was waved over to help didn’t know that Mr. Olmsted had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression. Officers who patrolled the neighborhood had been called to the house multiple times and perhaps would have known Mr. Olmsted was emotionally unstable. Things unfolded too quickly for them to respond. (NOLA.com).


But his death ought to lead us to a better understanding of how police can recognize mental illness and defuse those incidents (NOLA.com).


New Orleans has struggled with this problem since Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches. The disaster left many residents deeply wounded and without sufficient treatment and support services (NOLA.com).


In January 2008, New Orleans Police Officer Nicola Cotton was shot to death during a struggle with a man who had recently been released from a mental hospital. She was 24 and expecting a baby when she was killed (NOLA.com).


Then-Police Superintendent Warren Riley said Officer Cotton did not perceive the man, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, as a threat when she started questioning him. The two of them ended up struggling, and he grabbed her weapon and shot her 15 times, police said (NOLA.com).


In 2010, New Orleans police shot and killed a man who was described by his family as suicidal. A federal judge ruled the shooting was justified because the man was moving toward the officers with a knife. But the judge said she found the department’s “whole approach to this type of situation troubling” (NOLA.com).


Shortly after Mr. Olmsted died in July 2015, NOPD launched a Crisis Intervention Team to help officers understand the best way to deal with people who are mentally ill. Federal court monitors had been pushing the department to create the team and criticized the fact that it hadn’t been done in a December 2014 report. That is when NOPD announced it was starting to put the team in place (NOLA.com).


A Crisis Intervention Team is considered a best practice nationally. The goal is to minimize the use of force on mentally ill people and to get them into services instead of putting them in jail (NOLA.com).


Cecile Tebo, who oversees the new NOPD program, said officers learn to perform “rapid assessments” to recognize symptoms of mental illness. They are taught how to recognize different conditions so they can use the best techniques to calm down the situation and understand how dangerous a person may be (NOLA.com).


So far, 69 officers have completed the 40-hour crisis intervention training since the program launched in August 2015. NOPD expects to meet its goal to have 20 percent of the force trained by next month, a department spokesman said. The more officers who are trained, the better (NOLA.com).


Ms. Tebo, a licensed clinical social worker, is the perfect choice to run this program. For seven years, she led NOPD’s volunteer-staffed mobile crisis unit, which responded to calls involving mentally ill people. When she left the force in 2011, she and her team had helped thousands of people in crisis (NOLA.com).


NOPD has been dealing with an increasing number of mentally ill people, in part because of limited mental health services post Katrina. Better training can keep both mentally ill suspects and the police safer (NOLA.com).


“It’s all about communication, slowing the scene down, really sort of being non-tactical,” Ms. Tebo said when NOPD announced the new unit in 2014. “What it does is it puts another tool in their tool belt. You’ve got your gun, you’ve got your Taser and then you have this” (NOLA.com).


The city Health Department and the Metropolitan Human Services District have worked in recent years to make it easier for families and authorities to find the mental health services that are available (NOLA.com).


The Health Department put together a directory of counseling, detoxification and in-patient care options in 2012, and the services district launched a comprehensive electronic records system (NOLA.com).


Still, there are gaps. The Medicaid expansion that went into effect July 1 may help because it pays for mental health services for patients and could make it easier for them to see a doctor or counselor. As many as 81,000 more Louisianians who need treatment for mental illness or substance abuse could now qualify for coverage, according to federal health officials (NOLA.com).


Improving mental health care is essential, but officers still will be first-responders during a crisis in many cases. Ensuring they are trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness, calm people down and get them into care is the best way to keep everyone safe (NOLA.com).


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