Conference highlights intersection of mental health, law enforcement

Posted February 10, 2015
Updated February 19, 2015

— The state's top public safety official told a crowd of hundreds of sheriff deputies, police officers and health workers Tuesday that law enforcement needs a more compassionate approach when dealing with the mentally ill.

The remarks from Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry at the Statewide Crisis Intervention Team Conference come nearly a year after a mentally ill inmate died of thirst while in state custody. After five days left handcuffed in solitary confinement, Michael Kerr died in the back of a state transport van en route to Raleigh's Central Prison on March 12.

"We've been saddened by that," Perry said. "Since then, we've accelerated efforts to form a list not of excuses and complaints, but corrections for Corrections. The list happens to be 25 items long – and at the heart of it is CIT."

Crisis intervention teams unite mental health workers and advocates to train law enforcement officers on more effective tactics for working with mentally ill subjects. Perry said it's crucial training for first responders and prison officials alike.

"We're in the business of when other people see us, they either say, 'Oh, God' or 'Thank God.' The 'Oh, God' group we're good with. Law enforcement training has been good with compliance and control," Perry said. "But now it's time we really speed up, as we have in the last two years in the Department of Public Safety, crisis intervention training, which comes down to compassion."

The conference, held by National Alliance on Mental Illness North Carolina, focused on ways both health and criminal justice officials could work together to help those suffering from a mental health crisis.

Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page shared several chilling stories about responding to calls involving the mentally ill, including a shootout involving his deputies in the middle of a cemetery. He said his deputies are now better prepared to deal with mental illness because of CIT training.

"When law enforcement is called, people are in crisis, and what we need to teach our officers to do is slow down, take your time and calm a situation down," Page said. "It's about public safety, and it's about saving lives."

In the past year, the number of CIT-trained law enforcement officers has increased 23 percent, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos echoed Page in saying those officers can now better handle people in a mental health crisis.

"None of us alone have either the resources or the knowledge or the skills to be able to solve the problems we are facing in our communities by ourselves," Wos said, applauding the effort to bring mental health advocates and law enforcement officials together.

The system doesn't always work.

In December, 33-year-old Marcel Jordan was shot by a police officer at a mental health facility in Raleigh after the officer's stun gun didn't subdue him. Jordan's parents say he was mentally challenged and had schizophrenia.

"You can't save everybody, but I'll tell you this, if you train your guys and girls in CIT training, you stand a better chance of saving lives every time than you do not having it," Page said.

Perry said 12 percent of North Carolina's more than 37,000 prison inmates suffers some form of mental illness, up from 9.8 percent from 2007.

"The more we incarcerate, the more we encounter mental illness," he said. "So, we must be trained, and we're changing the culture."

That's one reason why prison officials are seeking an additional $20 million from the state legislature for the treatment of mentally ill inmates. The funding would pay for 372 additional positions, including 64 needed to reopen beds at Central Prison closed after budget cuts.

At Alexander Correctional Institution, where Kerr was kept in segregation before his death, prison officials are changing the facility's treatment mission and moving mentally ill inmates to other facilities better equipped to handle them.

DPS has also disciplined at least 25 employees in connection with Kerr's death, including 10 who resigned or received dismissals. Several are contesting their firings.

No criminal charges have been filed, but federal and state officials continue to investigate.


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