Task force aims to help police deal with the mentally-disabled

In normal circumstances, Mary Howley would agree, children who repeatedly hit their parents should be arrested and charged with a crime.

But her two foster children have mental disabilities and a history of enduring abuse in their previous living situations.

So when she called police to her home during family altercations, it wasn’t to get her children arrested. It was to protect herself from immediate physical harm and to get help calming the situation.

But that’s not how the response to her 911 phone calls played out. Situations quickly escalated when the police arrived, and her children were routinely arrested.

Mary Howley

Mary Howley: Police not equipped to deal with mental disability (Jacqueline Rabe)

“Officers had very little tolerance for his mental retardation and his behavioral episodes,” she recalled of a recent incident involving one of her children. They “didn’t understand persons with disabilities.”

Howley’s story is not unique, and this week a task force convened for its first meeting at the State Capitol to discuss what policies and programs are needed in the criminal justice system to help those who are incapable of understanding the ramifications of their actions.

“The police just really are not equipped to handle certain types of emergencies,” said Sen. Kevin D. Witkos, the Republican co-chairman on the task force, and police sergeant in Canton. “We sometimes may be creating more of a problem than we are helping. Certain times all we should be doing is calming down the situation.”

The Office of the Chief State’s Attorney offers a program, called the “Crisis Intervention Team,” to help train police officers to deal with people who have mental impairments.  But Kenneth Edwards, an inspector with the office’s Domestic Violence Unit, said the training program is underutilized.

There are currently 600 CIT trained police officers in Hartford, New Haven, New London, Norwich, Stamford, West Haven and a few smaller towns, he said.

Edwards, who is retired from the New London police department, said the city has about 40 trained officers who have helped reduce by half the number of arrests resulting from domestic violence calls involving people with mental disabilities.

“Some problems that we face require training. Some problems that we face require programs. But the really complex ones, and we are talking about a very complex problem here, require an element of both,” he said.

But not all police departments are as eager to sign up for this training.

“The argument is [training] is too expensive. … That’s pretty much every year,” Edwards said, adding that some departments have a “lukewarm reception” to the training to begin with.

“There is still hope. We are trying to spread it across the state,” he said, adding federal grants to help pay for the training have been helping to increase participation.

Howley said if police officers have to be dispatched to her home again, she can only hope they have this training.