WASHINGTON — When Newport, R.I., police officers Seth Moseley and Eric Cormier were summoned in August to a Marriott Hotel, they found a distressed 34-year-old man struggling with imaginary demons vying for control of his mind.
The man reported hearing voices through the walls and complained that a “microwave machine” was sending out vibrations piercing his body.
At the time, there was nothing to suggest that a month later, a delusional Aaron Alexis would launch a deadly attack at the Washington Navy Yard.
The early morning hotel call underscores a separate struggle for law enforcement officers encountering an increasing number of people with mental illness. By some national estimates, law enforcement and health officials say, up to 20% of police calls involve people whose behavior ranges from the dysfunctional to serious mental illness. Ron Honberg, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ director of policy and legal affairs, said even 20% may be a conservative estimate.
“The struggle in many communities is whether police have adequate access to mental health resources to assist them,” University of Memphis professor Randolph DuPont said.
DuPont, who helped develop a national model for police response to the mentally ill that was first implemented in the Memphis Police Department in 1988, said it is not uncommon for officers to respond to one or two calls per shift involving a behavioral problem or mental disorder.
In Newport alone, an estimated 40% of police calls for service involve the mentally ill or other behavioral problems, Lt. William Fitzgerald said.
“Unfortunately, it is a daily occurrence,” said Fitzgerald, who said the officers and the department acted appropriately in the Alexis case by reporting the incident to authorities with the Navy where Alexis worked as a private contractor.
A copy of the police report was sent to naval security officers. The report was never forwarded to higher military authorities. The Navy’s response is part of a larger military security review.
Program offers specialized training
The Memphis program, known as the Crisis Intervention Team or CIT, offers specialized training to cadres of officers in dealing with the emotionally disturbed. It attempts to link police with mental health professionals and community advocates to provide resources, including treatment outside the confines of prisons and jails, which have become repositories for the mentally ill.
The program was created in the wake of the fatal police shooting of a 27-year-old emotionally disturbed man who was wielding a knife in 1987. The vocal community response helped launch the law enforcement-mental health partnership.
“It was a very tumultuous time,” Cochran said. “But the leadership of the city did something. They called in the mental health professionals and said, ‘We need your help.’ ”
Fifty-six percent of all state prison inmates and 45% of federal prisoners reported symptoms of mental illness, according to a 2006 review by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The suspected troubled population is even higher in jails where 64% of inmates reported symptoms of a mental disorder, ranging from mania, delusions and depression to hallucinations, according to the Justice review.
“I hate the idea that we’re putting people like this in jail when the issue often really isn’t a criminal one,” said Sam Cochran, a retired Memphis police major who served as the department’s first CIT coordinator. “The issues, more often than not, involve individuals dealing with crisis.”
In many communities, Cochran said, officers do not possess either the ability or confidence to handle such encounters. “The communities are not prepared to accommodate these types of crisis needs,” he said.
More training needed
The enormous volume of encounters — some of them deadly — has prompted more than 2,700 agencies to adopt the program developed in Memphis 25 years ago.
Honberg of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, which assists in the Memphis CIT training effort, said not all law enforcement agencies are equally prepared to deal with calls involving the mentally ill, despite the expansion in training since 1988.
Last month, mental health advocates called on the New York Police Department to establish a CIT program after the family of an emotionally disturbed knife-wielding man fatally shot last year by police filed a lawsuit against the city.
In Newport, Honberg said, the officers appeared to handle the Alexis incident “fairly compassionately and gently,” though the agency is not among those that have formally adopted the Memphis model.
Though he was careful not to directly criticize the officers’ actions as outlined in an Aug. 7 police report, he did raise questions about their parting counsel to the troubled Alexis who complained of being followed by three unknown people “sending vibrations into his body.”
“I advised (Alexis) to stay away from the individuals that are following him and to notify NPD if they attempt to make contact with him,” officer Moseley reported.
Honberg said the direction was akin to advising a heart attack victim to “make sure you don’t eat fatty foods.”
“Clearly,” Honberg said, “he wasn’t doing very well.”
Fitzgerald lauded the officers’ response. He said the department provides its own training in dealing with the emotionally disturbed. “There is always Monday morning quarterbacking going on, but there is nothing more the officers could have done. He was not a harm to himself or to others.”