Mary Sanchez

August 26, 2014

Better training helps police when 911 involves mental health

Perspective is important with increased publicity around police shootings lately, first in Ferguson, Mo., and now the death of a teenager in Ottawa last weekend. At least in cases of the mentally ill, much has been accomplished in recent years to help police respond more effectively.

The weather was beautiful the day police shot and killed Aaron Dougherty.

A bright, sunny November day of 2002. That’s not trivial reflection. The conditions may have played a role in the 26-year-old’s death.

Dougherty had dimmed the lighting in his family’s Brookside home. When officers entered, answering a 911 call Aaron had made about someone being armed, their eyes were likely still adjusting. Dougherty, suffering from depression, had knives in his grip. The officers believed he moved toward them.

Attention to the innate, physiological aspects of policing, coupled with intense training on mental illness, is one of the positive outcomes of the shooting. Dougherty’s father tells his story to police learning about mental health through Mid-America Crisis Intervention Teams, which has trained 2,000 police officers, dispatchers and detention officers on the Missouri side of the Kansas City area since 2000.

The program reinforces officers’ training about the things that happen to them during stress — elevated heart rates, for one — then layers on information about mental illness.

So when Jim Dougherty heard about the shooting death of Joseph Jennings of Ottawa, Kan., his own heart took a skip. Jennings, 18, had reportedly just been released from psychiatric care and was suicidal. Ottawa police shot him Saturday, answering a call about a man armed with a gun.

Perspective is important with increased publicity around police shootings lately. For the mentally ill, much has been done in recent years to help police respond. The program Dougherty promotes gives police critical insights, including understanding how a person might behave if they have stopped taking medication or are in the middle of an overdose.

Kansas City police responded to two suicide threats last weekend. A woman armed with a knife said she wanted “suicide by cop.” A man holding what turned out to be a BB gun sat on his roof with a rope around his neck. Both situations ended without harm.

Nikk Thompson first brought the crisis intervention training (CIT) program to the metro area while he was an officer in Lee’s Summit. He is retired now, but he continues to help spread it metrowide and to other states, including Kansas.

“If a CIT officer has to shoot, then he has tried everything in his power not to do so,” Thompson said. “And it’s devastating to the CIT officers. You feel that you lost.”

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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