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New ways of responding to mental health crises

Scott Strathy of the King County Sheriff
Scott Strathy of the King County Sheriff's Office is working on a pilot program for law enforcement to better respond to mental illness.
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Herald

POULSBO — A point of frustration for law enforcement officers and families of individuals with mental illness is a lack of knowledge about a subject’s mental health before a crisis arises.

Several local law enforcement officers, fire officials and Kitsap Mental Health Services representatives listened to a presentation July 22 on possible ways of responding to situations involving someone who is having a mental health crisis.

Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend said his department is already working on new procedures.

Scott Strathy, operations commander in the Shoreline-Kenmore Precinct of the King County Sheriff’s Office, presented his department’s pilot project, called RADAR, which works with the community to improve how public safety officers respond to crises involving someone with mental health issues.

RADAR improves communication between public safety officers and mental health providers, and links persons with mental illnesses with providers.

Townsend said Poulsbo is already doing many of the things identified in RADAR.

“The concept of those ideas, going out and meeting with families, people we know we’ve had contact with before … it’s a small community,” Townsend said.

RADAR stands for Risk Awareness, De-escalation And Referral. According to Strathy, officers would proactively build relationships with community members and give them more tools when crisis situations occur.

People with diminished capacity, Strathy said, can’t respond the way police think is a usual, appropriate response. The solution involves many parties — dispatchers, the family of the challenged person (called the circle of support), law enforcement officers and paramedics.

Many members of the public listened to Strathy’s presentation, and were cautiously optimistic about the program’s objectives.

Bill Ostling, the father of Doug Ostling, a mentally ill man who was shot and killed by a Bainbridge Island police officer in 2010, asked about the role of CenCom, the local police dispatch center.

“CenCom sets the stage,” Ostling said, asking how a program like RADAR would incorporate those operators. RADAR is still in the development stage, but Strathy said operators would be included in the communication and training.

Another woman, who said her brother is schizophrenic and recently had an incident with police, said she would like first responders to be more involved in the program.

“How do we know [police] will use the information we give you,” she asked. Many others echoed that EMTs would be more responsible with mental health care.

David Hackett, senior deputy prosecutor with King County, said there are relationships that need to be repaired.

Jackie Carver spoke vehemently about her son-in-law, Joseph Henninger, who was killed by Poulsbo Police officers in 2011 following a confrontation at the Les Schwab Tire Center.

Henninger, 24, was in “obvious psychological distress” when he entered the store, threatened employees, and fired a handgun twice, according to the determination by Prosecuting Attorney Russell D. Hauge. No one was injured by Henninger.

Carver said her son-in-law was shot too many times and then handcuffed when on the ground.

“They [police] don’t even understand the impact,” she said after the meeting. “We don’t know how to live, no one is happy.”

She added, “They blew our trust. “To us, they’re [Poulsbo Police] just another gang.”

Townsend, who was not police chief at the time, said from what he’s learned of the case, Henninger had already fired shots around other people when police arrived. “I don’t know if we could have changed it,” he said.

Poulsbo Police officers had already attended annual mental health training, but an important aspect of de-escalating these situations is communication from the challenged person’s family to the police.

“Officers are trained to be very sensitive to issues when dispatched to the call,” Deputy Police Chief Robert Wright said.

“Recognizing when a person appears to be unstable … [there are] ways to determine if a person is having actual issues or whether they’re alcohol or drug fueled,” Wright said.

“Most of time, dispatchers do not have the information to give to officers.”

Wright estimated there are about 30 calls a year where officers know ahead of time if there is a mental issue, many of which are by repeat callers.Townsend said the next step is to work with their regular callers to get them the services they need.

For example, one Poulsbo man known as Mr. Smith, as Townsend calls him, responds well to Poulsbo’s crisis intervention officer, Dave Shurick. What the man’s family would like to see after law enforcement arrives and paramedics take him to the hospital, that the hospital would assess his problems, medicate him appropriately, set him up with counseling and follow up.

The reality is different. The family told Townsend he has arrived home 24 hours after a suicide attempt without medications or follow up.

“Under the current way things are handled, we may respond to a person two dozen times,” Wright said. “They’re obviously suffering distress [and] need long-term help, [but] there’s nothing in place currently that solves that problem.”

Townsend said mental health services in the county need help in “stabilizing” what police are seeing on the street.

Kitsap Mental Health Services has put forth a sales tax initiative to the Kitsap County Board of commissioners, to take 1/10th of 1 percent from county sales tax, and put that into a fund for mental services. Joe Roszak, executive director of Kitsap Mental Health Services, said many agencies would be able to apply for grants: schools, primary care clinics and hospitals, law enforcement, court systems, housing authorities.

“If my strategic partners can get funding to provide these services, [Kitsap Mental Health] benefits indirectly, and overall Kitsap County as a whole benefits,” Roszak said. “What we need is money to fill these gaps, and other folks can do that.”

The League of Women Voters is holding informational meetings about the initiative, and if adopted by the commissioners, may go into affect in January 2014. It is estimated the initiative would bring between $3 million and $3.2 million annually for mental health service grants.

Roszak said programs like RADAR are “an important vehicle to provide information to officers who are potentially entering into a crisis situation, to help them set the stage.”

“I think we [in Kitsap County] have a long history of working collaboratively and progressively.”

He said he also understands the public’s frustration when they see a bad situation get worse, like the Ostlings.

“I think it’s prudent, and I think critical thinking is essential when reviewing proposals of this nature,” Roszak said.

“RADAR is a good example of what I would hope becomes more common place … [with] more public vetting of proposals and involvement.”

 

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