Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin at Platteville held a conference on policing in the 21st Century, covering many current law enforcement and public topics.
The first part of this series last week covered the morning session of the conference, while this week involved the afternoon session.
In the afternoon, things kicked off with a panel discussion on law enforcement’s role, and abilities in dealing with people who are suffering from mental illness.
“We have become mental health workers because of the work that we do,” Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney told the audience, noting that he is the operator of the largest mental health institution in Dane County-the defacto mental health institution, as nearly half the people his deputies take into custody are suffering from chronic mental illness.
Mahoney noted that his deputies are dealing with situations they were never trained for. “They didn’t enter this profession for this reason, never given the tools in the mental health profession that they need…..They provide a service to those with mental health issues we as a society fail to provide.”
Mahoney estimated an average of 50-70 individuals are arrested a night suffering a mental health crisis in Dane County, and they end up in a solitary confinement cell at the jail - a concrete box where the only item in it is an aluminum toilet, while the lights are kept on 24 hours a day.
The only interaction comes through a mail slot in the door, where Mahoney saw one recent weekend one of his deputies working with a young man in a crisis, along with one of the mental health professionals he has on staff. “Jails are not designed to contain individuals suffering from mental health crisis,” Mahoney continued, noting that society, state and local governments have failed to act, which places the burden for mental health issues predominately on local law enforcement agencies across the country.
Captain Kristen Roman of the Madison Police department echoed the defacto status where law enforcement have become mental health workers. “We are not mental health professionals, nor are we trying to be,” Roman stated, but added that officers do receive crisis intervention training, and what to do when encountering those in a crisis when waiting is not an option.
Roman said that with her department, training involves not only intervention, but also prevention, as officers are instructed to interact with the community, talking with residents and organizations to find out where issues may arise.
“They are the default first responders,” noted Lindsay Wallace, who was the Madison director of the National Association for the Mentally Ill chapter, which tries to help those with a mental illness find assistance where they can. Wallace shared that she came to work with the group after first seeking assistance from them, having a mental crisis at a fuel station after she had moved back home. Having never been diagnosed with any condition, she had an episode that ultimately led her to be held in a psychiatric ward for a couple of weeks.
“It’s hard to imagine that person was me,” Wallace said, explaining how she had disconnected with reality.
In her role at NAMI, one of the duties is to work with law enforcement, helping them learn skills and tools to keep both the individual and the officer safe when dealing with a problem. ”We thank you guys every day,” Wallace continued about how law enforcement are the front line when dealing with a person in mental crisis. She said one of the things to remember is that a person suffering an issue is a human first, and should not be defined by the crisis they are suffering.
Mahoney believes things need to change, something needs to be done to counter the decades-long retraction by the state and federal governments, when it comes to mental illness, thrusting it upon law enforcement agencies.
“Jails are not intended to house individuals with mental health crisis,” Mahoney stated, adding he has been a vocal proponent for having those in crisis taken out of the jail, feeling it’s inhumane to deal with them in that setting.
“Why are those in mental crisis put in jail in the first place?” asked Rep. Chris Taylor. She noted that out of a $2.5 billion corrections budget in the state, only $8 million is for alternative programs.
Fighting for his son
A case where things went horribly wrong was spotlighted in the following session by a presentation made by Michael Bell Sr. Michael’s son, Michael Jr., was killed in an officer-involved shooting in 2004. Michael was being arrested after an altercation with police, and had his hands handcuffed behind his back when he was shot in the head in front of his mother and sister. Michael Sr. believes an officer yelled that his gun was being taken after that officer mistakenly caught his gun holster on a car side mirror.
“We believe it was an honest mistake,” Bell told the crowd about the incident, and wished the Kenosha Police Department, had come to him and his family and admitted as much.
But instead, within days of the shooting, the same Kenosha Police Department that was involved in the shooting, had investigated and cleared the officers of wrong-doing, eventually giving each officer involved a medal.
That experience led to Bell Sr. lobbying for the next decade to change the law on how officer-involved shootings are reviewed. To his shock, a review by the same department was common.
After that decade of lobbying, Bell Sr. got to see the state law changed so that in Wisconsin, the Department of Justice now investigates all officer involved shootings.
Far from being bitter to law enforcement, Bell Sr. talked about the job officers do again and again. He recalled watching the video of an officer in Green Bay grabbing a woman who was leaping off a bridge in a suicide attempt and he noted other experiences.
He also said that he worked with the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the top law enforcement union, in his efforts to get the law passed.
“They pledged to work with us,” Bell Sr. said, and he stated that the dialogue has been important. In addition to the law, training continues to evolve from being a warrior, ready to fire, to being a guardian, looking to deescalate a situation, he said.
One of the people in the audience for the conference was Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman, who echoed some of the challenges for law enforcement agencies like his own.
“Overall I thought it was a very good conference, with it generating some good ideas that the sheriff's office will look at,” Dreckman stated. “We always look at ways to improve what we do, so these will help us in the future to make what we do better for those we protect and serve.”
Dreckman said that his department was already working on implementing different ideas that had come from the 21st Century Policing Task Force report, which had created 30 guiding principles law enforcement agencies should implement.
Deescalation has been a word the department has been utilizing for many years, and Dreckman noted that the cases of use-of-force in the department have been rare over the years. “For us, it’s about being able to talk to people,” Dreckman said, wanting the ultimate goal to be voluntary compliance. “Our deputies understand that,” he continued, stating that they talk to individuals they come in contact with to reduce any possibility of deploying a taser or pepper spray.
Dreckman said that because officers are often on patrol on their own, they do not have backup readily available, and it’s safe for all parties to come to a peaceful resolution. “You can’t get into a physical altercation,” Dreckman said.
He added that the office has policies to make things as transparent as possible if there was an officer-involved shooting, something he hopes to never use. And because of the size of the department, even before the new law was passed, an outside department would have investigated any incident.
“In the end, it’s a very good law put in place,” he added, noting that the Badger Sheriff organization he is a member of worked to help craft the law, and hopes to be at a conference Bell is looking to hold.
When it comes to mental health issues, Dreckman noted that issues have become more prevalent in recent year with the number of calls increasing.
“The biggest issue here is a lack of services,” Dreckman noted, stating that the closest mental health facility to take individuals to is in Oshkosh.
As far as the immediate call, he said deputies are trained in handling mental health crisis, and talking and assessing the situation. The department also relies on Unified Services, as well as a crisis line from Northwest Connections to help determine what additional help or treatment they may need to have.
Dreckman said that the jail staff and director are constantly working with medical staff, and with contracted therapists to provide care for those with mental health issues in the jail, something commended by the annual jail inspection.
When it came to discussing building trust in the community with policing in light of unrest, Dreckman appreciated hearing from those who have been active in calling for reform after officer-involved shootings in other parts of the country.
“It was interesting to hear firsthand from some of the groups that have been very vocal about police reform and so forth,” Dreckman commented. “I’ve read plenty of articles from these people, but to hear them speak brings a different perspective to it.”