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Cities Embrace New Way to Handle Confrontations Between Cops and the Mentally Ill

Cities Embrace New Way to Handle Confrontations Between Cops and the Mentally Ill
by Arun Venugopal

NEW YORK, NY December 13, 2007 —It's been just over a month since the death of Khiel Coppin, in Brooklyn. He's the emotionally ill 18 year old who was shot by police officers who thought he was holding a gun. It turned out to be a hairbrush. The incident drew attention to the NYPD's methods for dealing with mentally ill people. As WNYC's Arun Venugopal reports, there is a different way, and it's being embraced by cities across the nation.

REPORTER: A call comes into 911, in Memphis, Tennessee. The caller tells the 911 operator he's worried about a man, who's threatening his mother with a knife and becoming increasingly agitated.

MAN: I wish you'd come here immediately. This man could hurt somebody.

OPERATOR: And does he take medication?

MAN: Yes, he do. But he ain't had it and he's been drinking.

REPORTER: The operator asks the caller a few other questions, before dispatching several police cars to the scene. Those include what are known as Crisis Intervention team officers, who are specially trained to deal with the mentally ill.

OPERATOR: 1-49, 1-59, 1-57…mental consumer. Has on a red and black shirt, blue shorts. He's armed with a knife. He's off his medication. Diagnosis is paranoid schizophrenic.

REPORTER: In the end, the man with the knife was subdued by Memphis Police officers, who took him to a hospital. No charges were filed. While this kind of confrontation is common enough for police officers across the country, the call touches upon policy differences between the NYPD and other police departments, in terms of how they deal with the mentally ill.

The death last month of 18-year-old Khiel Coppin in New York highlighted those differences. When Coppin's mother called 911, she didn't mention his history of mental illness, and unlike in Memphis and other cities, the 911 operator didn't ask. The officers the operator dispatched to the scene were thus not specially trained to deal with what they call EDPs, or emotionally disturbed persons. When they realized what they were up against, they called for help, but the specialists took time to arrive. Meanwhile, Khiel Coppin escalated his confrontation with the police, who opened fire after he pulled out what first appeared to be a gun, but turned out to be a hairbrush.

Coppin's death is just the latest in a number of high-profile incidents involving the NYPD and mentally ill people. But in other cities, such cases have forced local police departments to change their methods. In Memphis, the turning point was in 1987, when the police confronted a 27-year-old man wielding a large knife.

COCHRAN: After a very brief encounter, this individual basically was shot and killed by our officers, which started a community outcry.

REPORTER: Major Sam Cochran is the coordinator of the Memphis Police Department's CIT, or Crisis Intervention Team. The unit was the nation's first and was developed in concert with mental health advocates and providers. CIT officers are highly trained and make up nearly a quarter of the dispatch officers on the force. With the Los Angeles Police Department, the goal is 20 percent.

But the emphasis goes beyond the numbers, by giving CIT officers more authority in situations involving the mentally ill, and downplaying an aggressive approach in favor of a more empathic one.

COCHRAN: Sometimes we allow the uniform to do the talking, and not the person who's underneath the uniform. You're there to help the person, there to keep to keep this person safe. The CIT officer's not only working with the individual in crisis, but he's also working to monitor that the other officers present are not feeding in to exciting the individual further.

REPORTER: According to Major Cochran, the CIT program has been embraced by at least 600 police departments in the last 20 years. It's now promoted by NAMI, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness as best practice, in part because it maintains close contact between the police and the family members of the mentally ill. In Memphis, the first 6 years of the program saw a 30 to 40 percent decrease in injuries to police officers.

Habsi Kaba is the CIT training coordinator for Miami-Dade County, which now has about 1400 CIT officers spread across a number of local police departments. She says one of the main lessons she gives officers is to slow it down.

KABA: If you're yelling and he's yelling it's only going to escalate and make things worse. You're the rational one. You need to slow him down. Do the opposite of what you were trained to do.

REPORTER: The program has also resulted in fewer people recycling through the justice system.

KABA: Since we started the program our recidivism to jail has dropped from 80 percent to 17 percent. If it's a misdemeanor we're asking the officer to use their discretion and decide: Am I going to arrest or am I going to divert this person to treatment?

REPORTER: The death of Khiel Coppin prompted mental health advocates to protest the NYPD's policies. Lisa Ortega of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities said the solution was to embrace Crisis Intervention Teams.

ORTEGA: NYPD is trained in military techniques. And this is a more compassionate, loving way of dealing with people. They really are resistant. They like things the way they are and they don't want to change. And this is the Big Apple, and their excuse is there's just too many people to have that be effective.

REPORTER: The NYPD did not grant any interviews on how it deals with people with mental illness. But in an email, police spokesman Paul Browne said all officers receive 14.5 hours of relevant training in the academy, and more as they climb the ranks. He also defended the performance of the department's highly trained Emergency Service Units, which are directed to scenes involving emotionally disturbed persons, or EDP's. There is a protocol in place for involving EDPs, where officers are instructed to use the minimum amount of force needed to protect EDP's.

In the first 11 months of this year, the NYPD handled nearly 82 thousand actions involving EDPs. Browne said 'virtually all' of those took place without further incident.

MASTERS: It's not fair for the NYPD to make statements like that.

Amanda Masters is an attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

MASTERS: In the course of our litigation they've admitted they haven't done any analysis of how this policy was working.

REPORTER: Masters represents the mother of Kevin Cerbelli, a delusional man who walked into an NYPD precinct house in 1998 and stabbed an officer before he was shot dead. In the lawsuit she's leading, Masters claims that regular officers are not trained to de-escalate situations involving the mentally ill.

MASTERS: Instead, they're taught this policy of encirclement, where surround a person. They're shouting, they have guns drawn. It heightens the anxiety and danger for everyone involved.

REPORTER: Her claims have been backed up by a former NYPD official. John Pritchard served as the First Deputy Police Commissioner in the mid-90s, second in rank to Commissioner Ray Kelly. In a lengthy court document, Pritchard said the NYPD's encirclement policy is a recipe for disaster, because it poses risks of crossfire and tends to drive up anxiety levels for everyone involved. He blamed the NYPD for Kevin Cerbelli's death, and said his death was avoidable.

Phillip Kirscher is with the New York state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Several years ago, he underwent a severe crisis related to his depression. He considered committing suicide by cop, which involves provoking the police into opening fire. He found himself at the center of a police encirclement.

KIRSCHNER: They almost gave me what I wanted, if it wasn't for a sergeant that toned things down quickly.

REPORTER: Kirschner claims most officers don't know how to deal with such situations, and the Emergency Service Units are frequently unavailable. But he said the NYPD and the city are unwilling to devote the necessary resources to changing the system and embracing the CIT method.

According to Jennifer Parish at the Urban Justice Center, 29 percent of the city's jail inmates sought mental health services last month. About a third of those, or nearly 10 percent of the jail population, would be considered seriously mentally ill.

Even those who criticize the NYPD's methods note that the police are just one part of a larger problem, where the mentally ill fail to get adequate treatment in their community and the justice system is forced to bear the burden. According to Lt. Rick Wall of the Los Angeles Police Department, the 2 largest facilities in the country for housing the mentally ill are Los Angeles County's Detention Center, and Riker's Island, in New York.

WALL: There's not a state hospital, there's not a county hospital, there's no mental health hospital in the nation that can rival either of those facilities when it comes to sheer numbers. Because we're not putting the money into the mental health resources that we need to be there, we're not taking care of the outpatient treatment that needs to happen, that these people are becoming involved in criminal activity, and they're ending up in jail.

The NYPD is currently investigating the death of Khiel Coppin.

For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.