Police are learning to deal with the mentally ill

Gerry Cullumber was out of options.

A family member with bipolar disorder lost control in his home, tearing at the walls and furniture, and couldn’t be calmed.

After several frustrating hours, Cullumber had to call the police.

“I even, with all my resources, had reached my limit,” said Cullumber, who was a Lenexa police lieutenant at the time. “I was spent emotionally and spiritually.”

The officers who arrived were from Douglas County, trained to deal with mental health crises. They approached the situation with calm and understanding.

Now police in Wyandotte County are following the path of other jurisdictions by looking for more compassionate ways to work with the mentally ill.

Leon Evans, president of the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, has had success with mental health training for police and a diversion program in his county. He points to thousands of low-level offenders with mental health problems steered toward treatment instead of jail. He can also point to millions of dollars saved. Treatment is far cheaper than jail.

Law enforcement officers in Wyandotte County, like others around the Kansas City area, are looking at the models Evans used to reduce the number of mentally ill people entering the criminal justice system.

One of the first steps is to train police to recognize the signs and symptoms. At least 17 percent of the inmates in the Wyandotte County jail have a mental illness, which mirrors the national average. Not all of them belong there, said Pete Zevenbergen, CEO of Wyandot Center, the area’s chief mental health care provider.

Police in Johnson and Jackson counties already learn to recognize mental illness through a program called Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT. It includes courses on autism, the side effects of psychotropic medications and ways to de-escalate tense situations through conversation, body language and tone of voice. In one course, a virtual reality machine simulates for officers the auditory and visual hallucinations experienced by a person with schizophrenia.

So far, 38 sheriff’s deputies and police officers from Wyandotte County have gone through the training. More than 25 more are enrolled for a course in September.

One of the most vocal proponents of treatment over incarceration is Donovan Gardner, 32, of Kansas City, Kan. As a young man with bipolar disorder, Gardner was arrested several times on minor charges. Between the ages of 18 and 23, he was in and out of jail and hospitals after his uncontrollable mood swings led him afoul of authorities.

One time, he was stopped by police while walking down the highway after his car had broken down. He cursed at a cop who asked him questions and ended up in jail.

Without his medication, his mental state deteriorated. He wasn’t able to follow the normal steps for getting out. Hallucinating, he didn’t know where he was.

“I didn’t know I was in jail for a couple of weeks,” he said. “My mom had to come up and tell me where I was.”

The mishap on the highway led to more than two weeks behind bars, followed by more than a year of hospitalization.

After that episode, Gardner found ways to stay on his medication and avoid bumping heads with police. For the past nine years, he has avoided jail and only once needed to go into a hospital. He now mentors people with mental illness in Kansas City, Kan., and was elected to the Unified Government’s advisory committee on disability issues.

Gardner said CIT can help police avoid letting otherwise non-criminal encounters with the mentally end in jail.

Jail is the last place police want to take someone with a mental illness, said Capt. Doug Parisi of the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department. Usually it happens because a mental crisis can appear, on the surface, like suspicious behavior. A person not answering questions, not making eye contact, can seem to be hiding something.

“They might not even know you’re there,” Parisi said. “They might be hallucinating. They’re trying to figure out what’s real or not real.”

Parisi was one of the first officers from Wyandotte County to go through CIT last year. But family experience already had given him a different point of view on mental illness. Parisi grew up with a brother with schizophrenia.

“I learned to communicate with him. I learned about the ups and downs, the good days and the bad days,” he said. “It was 24 hours, seven days a week. I learned to encourage cooperation with him.”

For Sheriff Don Ash of Wyandotte County, anything that law enforcement can do to book fewer mentally ill people into his jail is a welcome development. He puts the number of mentally ill people in his jail at closer to 40 percent than 17 percent, based on the number of inmates on psychotropic medication. People with mental illness often remain in jail longer, unable to post bond.

“But there’s got to be somewhere for them to go,” Ash said. “If jails are the only option, that’s not good.”

In Johnson County, Sheriff Frank Denning said he has many of the same problems, but he is encouraged by the progress his county has made in the past two years. With help from a grant, police officers are being trained with CIT and the county now has a diversion program for offenders on minor charges where mental illness played a role.

Jackson County was the first county in the area to have police officers certified with CIT, and mental health courts handle some people arrested in connection with mental illness. Even so, Nikk Thompson, a retired police officer and commissioner on the mental health court, said the persistently mentally ill still often have nowhere to go but jail.

“The number one mental health facility in Missouri is the Jackson County jail,” he said.

In that respect, he said, “we’re really not helping them.”