Wednesday, May 29, 2013
In the Spotlight; Lorain Police
Saving lives one at a time!
For those of us old enough to remember, in the old movies and sitcoms, a scene would play out that would provoke laughter from the audience. When a character in the show would begin to act in a strange way, an ambulance would soon arrive, with two men in white coats carrying a straight-jacket. It was at this time that they would take the poor soul to a happy place, also known as a mental hospital. These spectacles brought a vast deal of amusement for those watching while at the same time, exploiting a dangerous situation. Those types of settings played out many times in old shows.
Additionally, as a child, I recall my father driving by one of those mental hospitals between Turney and Warner roads in Cleveland. It was named “The Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum” but was affectionately known as “Turney Tech”. This facility, long since torn down, is now the site of condominiums.
All of that is from a bygone era; we no longer have those health care workers arriving to help people who are emotionally sick. They are now replaced by men and women carrying guns and handcuffs and called police officers. This transition from law enforcement officers to mental health workers did not go smoothly. There were high incidents of police brutality allegations, numerous, violent confrontations between these two groups, which included fatal shootings. For a long time, the mentally ill feared the police and the police did not relish the encounters with someone in crises. Nor were the police properly trained to understand mental illness, and they lacked the proper insight in how to de-escalate someone in crisis.
Times have changed, as a new, innovated form of training introduced called Crisis Intervention Team training (CIT). This program developed in Memphis Tennessee in the late 1980’s, stresses de-escalation, rather than standoffish encounters, and more importantly, humanizes those afflicted.
Sergeant Robert Brown, a twenty year veteran of the Lorain City Police department, was one of the first officers in Lorain County to become part of the CIT program. In those years, he has seen it all, hostage situations, suicide attempts, families in dangerous situations and even the occasional success story. He can stand as an authority on the positive attributes of this program and as a role model of this police department.
In recent years, he has witnessed an ever increasing reliance on law enforcement to help someone in a psychotic mindset, and to get them to a safe environment for treatment. In 2012, this department received approximately 500 direct calls for assistance with someone in a mental health crisis. This represents a 5 % increase over the number in 2011.
An added burden that Sergeant Brown pointed out is that many times the officers do not realize that they are entering a crisis situation. Often, the calls may first appear as a domestic situation, or truancy, or one of many other categories. People calling in do not always say it is a potential suicide, or that their loved one is mentally ill and off their medication. It is only when the police are on the scene do they determine that they are facing a mental health situation. This sergeant recalls one time answering a call, and when the suspect answered the door, he was wielding an axe. Fortunately, he was able to subdue the man with a taser, and no one was injured.
At first, Sergeant Brown was skeptical about the benefits of CIT. Charlie Neff, the Director of the board of mental health remembers that doubt well back in 2001. “Sergeant Brown was not initially convinced that CIT would be all that helpful, but once he started through the training, he quickly realized the programs benefit for the officers and for the individuals they encounter.” Now he and this entire department are strong supporters of this programs benefit. He also indicated that these techniques has been valuable in hostage negotiations.
One added problem exists, and that is the economic makeup of Lorain which brings additional challenges and roadblocks. Financial deficiency is a “double edged” sword with regards to the people in need of treatment. Poverty is both the result of mental illness, and it also acts as a trigger for the disease. The city of Lorain carries a poverty rate of over 17%, with is nearly doubled the national average of 9%. This in itself creates a higher demand for police intervention on many fronts.
For many years, the police were identified as collateral contacts with the mentally ill, but it is impressive that this department accepts that they are now the primary ones to intervene. Unlike hospitals, like Mercy Hospital, they cannot answer a call with the dispatcher telling the callers that they are diverting psych cases and will not answer their pleas for help. It must be added that this department has done an admirable job despite these added burdens.
In an interview last August, Sergeant Brown was asked what is the largest roadblock his department faces as mental health workers? Without hesitation, he answered the absence of treatment, namely, beds for those in need. He went on to explain that, in the past, the city had two hospitals, but with the closing of St. Joseph’s, Mercy Hospital is the only option available. It must be pointed out that this facility has just over thirty beds available for mental health and drug dependent patients combined. This represents far less than what is urgently needed. He, like many people in the mental health sector are frustrated with the “treat them and street them” disposition of the medical community.
If there is one thing that he is grateful for, is that, in Lorain County, they have the NORD center to help with long-term treatment. The center, funded mostly through the Lorain County Board of Mental Health by two property tax levies the citizens of Lorain County have passed, is a safety net for people in dire need and has been utilized by the local police. This center helps to offset, in a small way, the 13% decline in mental health treatment beds statewide over the last seven years.
In spite of this challenge, the Lorain police have done an excellent transition into being the new mental health workers. Since 2002, they have had 36 officers go through this unique and essential training. Though only 12 are on the road because of promotions and turnover, this is still a significant percentage of their department. The long term goal is to have 25% of the road officers certified in CIT. In this era of tight budgets, that is an extraordinary intention that they are committed to achieving.
It is clear that the Lorain police have learned how to look past the internal disfigurement of mental illness and see real human beings, not animals, or psychos. I have found that many members of this department do their best to humanize sick people and not demean them. Empathy is a term that is synonymous with CIT and this group of men and women understand that definition in its entirety.
So often, perception is not always reality, and the Lorain City police are no exception. It is a department that has been maligned many times in the local media. Over the last several years, I have met many of these officers in different training programs and found no evidence that they deserve the negative connotations associated with them. All of whom that I have come in contact with have been officers like Sergeant Brown; good, hardworking, and dedicated law enforcement officers, with a strong desire to do their job well. More importantly, they prove that they care about doing what is right in helping people. That is something that should create a sense of pride to this entire community.