When dealing with mental illness, police do not have the answer
It is difficult to ignore the prevalence of encounters between emotionally distressed individuals and police officers in Connecticut that result in death. A review of prior reports prepared concerning the use of deadly force by police reveals a number of these encounters.
For instance, in 2015, David Werblow, a 41-year-old man living in a group home for adults with mental health disabilities called 911 to request transportation to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Werblow, who had no criminal history, had a long history of mental illness and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. When the police arrived, Werblow exited the building and, according to police reports, “began walking away from [the officer] and into the middle of the street.”
Werblow tried to enter a police cruiser but was unable to. He continued down the road, trying to enter another car and a truck. Eventually, he entered a car and refused to exit. A police officer tried to pull him out and warned that he would have to fire his Taser at Werblow. During this exchange, Werblow was tased a total of seven times and he seemed to be unaffected each time. Body camera footage revealed that the officer told Werblow to ‘stop’ or ‘get down’ at least 40 times before he first deployed his taser. Other officers subsequently arrived on the scene.
Approximately four minutes after Werblow was handcuffed, an officer found that Werblow no longer had a pulse. The Chief Medical Examiner stated that the death was likely due to a combination of factors, and not solely from the Taser use. It is nonetheless clear that a man who called 911 for assistance in receiving a psychiatric evaluation was dead within an hour of asking for help.
This is not an issue unique to Connecticut. It has been estimated that an individual suffering from mental illness is 16 times more likely than someone not suffering from mental illness to be killed during a police encounter. Given the volume of contact between emotionally distressed individuals and the police, minimizing the risk of escalation in police encounters with emotionally distressed individuals may be the most immediate and deployable strategy for reducing fatal police encounters.
Although police officers in Connecticut are required to receive training both prior to being certified and during the recertification process in handling encounters with individuals appearing to be emotionally distressed, it should be clear that more needs to be done.
I am a prosecutor by profession, having spent the last 27 years of my legal career in law enforcement, and what I can tell you is that law enforcement doesn’t have the answer. In the short term, police and prosecutors need to consider partnering with other stakeholders to ensure that the quantity and nature of police training in Connecticut is consistent with current best practices.
In the long term, Connecticut needs to consider different models for responding to individuals in crisis. One in ten calls for police services involve an individual with severe mental illness. We too often shift the responsibility for responding to these incidents from care providers to the police which results in contributing to the criminalization of mental illness.
One promising model is the Crisis Intervention Team that has been deployed successfully in a number of cities. While local practices vary, the common element to this approach is collaboration between the police and other stakeholders, including mental health providers.
When deployed effectively, this model minimizes the risk of harm to both the emotionally distressed individual and the responding officers in addition to providing services and diverting individuals in crisis away from the criminal justice system.
The good news is that Connecticut has begun to take a hard look at the issue. Section 12 of the recently passed police accountability bill establishes a task force to examine, among other things, “Police officer interactions with individuals who are individuals with a mental, intellectual or physical disability.” Section 18 mandates that every police department in Connecticut evaluate the feasibility of the use of social workers to assist officers responding to calls and to further consider a regional approach. Evaluating a regional approach is especially important in Connecticut given its tradition of many small municipal departments that might otherwise find the deployment of mental health workers to be cost prohibitive.
Policy makers and law enforcement leaders in Connecticut have recognized that we need to approach this issue differently. We are in the midst of transformative change in the way law enforcement relates to a variety of social issues. If we have both the courage to change and to commit the resources needed to effectuate that change, we can make a genuine difference in the relationship between individuals suffering from mental illness and law enforcement.
Brian W. Preleski is the Connecticut State’s Attorney for the New Britain Judicial District.
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