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The Challenges of Dealing With the Mentally Ill

One of the bigger challenges we have is dealing with the mentally ill. It has become a commonplace call for our officers. People in a mental health crisis are often combative, frightened and can be frightening.

Yesterday I was reviewing incidents of force use as we do here to look for policy compliance, need for training or improper actions. I review the reports and the in car video, recorded radio traffic and any other available information.

One of the cases I reviewed was a recent one where officers were called to a bus parked in front of the Palace on M-24. There was a passenger on the bus who was having an episode, standing up, talking irrationally, frightening other passengers and refusing to obey the directions of the driver. So she pulled over and called the police. Officer Michelle Hesse and Officer Mariusz Skomski were the responding officers. Hesse arrived first and got on the bus to talk with the man. While she was not wearing a body camera her in car system recorded the audio. She attempted to talk with the man to determine if he was on some sort of drug or if he was having a mental health crisis. He was incoherent and rambling in his response. The driver wanted him off the bus so that they could continue and meet their schedule. Hesse requested an ambulance because she suspected that he was having a mental health crisis. When the ambulance arrived the officers tried to convince him to get off the bus with them and into the ambulance. He was frightened and became combative. At one point he pushed Officer Hesse down into a seat and tried to rush past Officer Skomski. They finally managed to get control of him and carried him off the bus and into the ambulance where he was restrained on the cot. The only force use was to gain control of him to carry him off the bus. No weapons were used or displayed. Interestingly the officers later said many of the fellow bus passengers were using their cell phones to record the incident. The officers are accustomed to citizens recording them with their phones–it is legal to do so.

I talked to Officer Hesse yesterday in passing and she told me that she decided she was not going to seek an arrest warrant for the individual for pushing her because he is mentally ill and she couldn’t see how jail would be a solution to that. She felt that transport to the hospital and a petition to secure him a psych exam was appropriate. I concur.

This case illustrates the challenges we have. Across the country you see stories of police use of force against the mentally ill that can result in the death of the individual or the officer. It is a difficult problem for which we have very few resources. There are no mental health specialists that come into the field–we are it.

Recently we had an opportunity to train 2 officers in 40 hour training sessions to improve our skills in dealing with these situations. Given the week long school we could not train more than 2 people in 2 programs. We just can’t spare that many people at once. Officers Jeff Malone was trained in December and Officer Paul Wagonmaker in May. As a result of the training Officer Malone trained other officers as we rolled out new policy and procedure designed to assist officers in handling these cases.

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Doreen Olko
Director of Public Safety
Auburn Hills Department of Public Safety, Michigan