New system to help MS officers deal mentally ill

By Jerry Mitchell/The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON — Many Mississippi law enforcement officers lack adequate training to deal with the mentally ill, despite the fact an increasing number of those they arrest suffer from mental illness.

Under the current system, “law enforcement officers’ lives are in danger, and citizens’ lives are in danger,” said Ferdinand McAfee, interim coordinator for the Hinds County Crisis Intervention Team Task Force.

A new Mississippi law offers hope of changing that. Lawmakers did not attach any funding to the bill, however. Hinds County officials are pinning their hopes on obtaining a federal Justice Department grant. If they are successful and hammer out an agreement, McAfee said Hinds County will have a new system in place in a year that would enable officers to transport the mentally ill to a hospital instead of jail.

That, in turn, could become a model for other places across Mississippi.

“The sheriff and police are very, very interested in making this happen. They are tired of situations where officers are in danger or getting shot and then finding out the man was a patient at a mental health center,” said Angela Ladner, executive director of Mississippi Psychiatric Association.

That may have been what happened Aug. 6 when Latwan Smith allegedly shot Jackson police officer Glen Agee. The family identified Smith as suffering from schizophrenia and displayed bottles of his medicine to the news media.

What struck Ladner was those bottles were full, a sign Smith apparently wasn’t taking his medication – a perpetual problem among mental health patients.

The Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy has four hours of classroom instruction to help future officers deal with the mentally ill. Jackson police give 10 hours of training.

In contrast, a Crisis Intervention Team provides at least 40 hours of teaching and demonstrations on how to deal with the mentally ill. The CIT unit is “the equivalent of a SWAT team for mental illness,” McAfee said.

In 1987, Memphis police received complaints from families about their handling of the mentally ill, said police Maj. Sam Cochran, coordinator of the Memphis Police Services CIT. That puzzled police because they gave eight hours of training, he said, but it led to a re-examination of the way they operated.

A year later, Memphis police created CIT, which significantly reduced the number of officer injuries and became a model nationwide.

Unfortunately, many towns in Mississippi can’t afford this kind of training, said Steve Pickett, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Police and Sheriffs. The 350 police departments in Mississippi average 11 or fewer officers.

“Nothing has changed when it comes to picking up people that are mentally ill,” he said. “If someone has a heart attack, we’d take them to the hospital, but we’re taking the mentally ill to jail. We can never provide the level of care in jail or the corrections setting that should be provided.”

These days, law enforcement officers “have to be physicians, healers and disciplinarians,” Pickett said.

“It’s as much social work as it is an act of law enforcement. What you’re really dealing with is not just a person in crisis, but a family in crisis.”

Meanwhile, mental health officials have recast crisis intervention centers into crisis stabilization units, which means they can admit people voluntarily.

That’s helping divert some mentally ill from jails, said Wendy Bailey, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. After Batesville and Corinth opened their centers, the units were filled in less than a week from those who had been held in jails.

Phaedre Cole, who oversees the Grenada Crisis Intervention Center pilot program, said what staff are creating is “essentially an emergency room for the mentally ill,” enabling them to have immediate access to care instead of being held in jail.

But funding the MDMH gave in grants to a dozen of the state’s 15 community mental health centers to provide law enforcement training has ended.

The Hinds County CIT Task Force came into being in 2008 after officers wound up killing two men suffering from mental illness.

The Meridian and Gulf Coast communities are also working toward having their own CIT programs.

When Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin first won as sheriff in 1991, a group of deputies known as “the lunacy detail” dealt with the mentally ill, he said.

“That was where you went if you screwed up,” McMillin said.

McMillin said he turned the detail into a desirable unit, trained by the Memphis CIT.

“Some of the best officers I have in the department are on that unit,” he said.

McMillin said there needs to be more law enforcement training devoted to dealing with the mentally ill.