No Crisis Here Untrained Memphis Police Used to Kill Seven Mentally Ill People a Year. but That Was before the Police Got Smart. They Cooperated with Mental Health Experts on an Action Plan That Has Saved Lives -- and Memphis Is Now a National Model. Might There Be Lessons for Jacksonville?

By Sweeney, Kathleen | The Florida Times Union, January 10, 1999 | Go to article overview
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No Crisis Here Untrained Memphis Police Used to Kill Seven Mentally Ill People a Year. but That Was before the Police Got Smart. They Cooperated with Mental Health Experts on an Action Plan That Has Saved Lives -- and Memphis Is Now a National Model. Might There Be Lessons for Jacksonville?


Sweeney, Kathleen, The Florida Times Union


MEMPHIS -- High on cocaine, Joseph DeWayne Robinson stabbed at his throat with a foot-long butcher knife.

As four police officers surrounded him outside his apartment in a downtown public housing project, the 27-year-old man lunged toward them. The officers, called by the mentally ill man's mother to help him, fired.

Not once, but at least 10 times.

Robinson's death 10 years ago caused an outcry from mental health officials and advocates who said the police didn't know how to handle mentally ill people, especially those in crisis situations.

The problem was obvious, some said: On average, there were at least seven mentally ill people shot by police each year in Memphis.

With the help of mental health officials and the city's chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Memphis police created a special task force to improve how they respond to mentally ill people and assure the safety of the community, police officers and patients.

Memphis mental health officials say they are proud of the department's progress and the success of the program. Instead of multiple deaths each year, there have been only two police-involved deaths of mentally ill people since the program began in 1988.

In fact, it's working so well it's become a model for other police departments across the country.

It's a type of program some Jacksonville mental health experts say could have prevented the deaths of two mentally ill people here last year -- and the type of program that should be implemented here to prevent any more.

On Jan. 7, 1998, Shirley June Ansley was shot four times when she turned the wheels of her van toward a police officer.

Seven months later, Lateef Faroque Abdullah died while fighting with police officers trying to take him to a hospital psychiatric ward. He died of a heart attack -- brought on while police applied a choke hold not once but three times.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office says its officers receive adequate training, more than the national average of four hours, in dealing with the mentally ill, and that its policies are working.

"We could look at anything that would probably enhance our efficiency and anything that will help us deal more efficiently with the mentally ill person," Sheriff Nat Glover said. "But in fact, the system we use now . . . it's been functional for us."

Though there have only been two determined deaths of mentally ill persons in Jacksonville, local mental health officials say the Sheriff's Office hasn't made moves to assure any more won't happen. It hasn't trained its officers to handle these situations more sensitively, something families of mentally ill people often complain about.

Bill Retzer, president of the Jacksonville Alliance of the Mentally Ill, also said too many mentally ill people wind up in jail on simple misdemeanor charges like urinating in public or loitering instead of getting help.

The Memphis Police Department also once defended how it responded to the mentally ill. Its officers, too, received more training than the national average. But Robinson's death prompted review.

A year after that shooting, a Crisis Intervention Team was created. Its 165 officers receive 40 hours of training, nearly five times the training as Jacksonville police officers. It has nearly put the hostage negotiation team out of business by handling crisis situations involving mentally ill people.

"We realized how ignorant we were toward the mentally ill," said Walter Winfrey, director of the Memphis Police Department. "I think that departments could take something we reacted to and make a success out of it."

MAKING IT WORK

From behind the Plexiglas of a Memphis police car, William Perkins insists he's done nothing wrong.

"He was wrong," Perkins exclaims, pointing to the man sitting in a nearby ambulance and holding a rag to his head.

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No Crisis Here Untrained Memphis Police Used to Kill Seven Mentally Ill People a Year. but That Was before the Police Got Smart. They Cooperated with Mental Health Experts on an Action Plan That Has Saved Lives -- and Memphis Is Now a National Model. Might There Be Lessons for Jacksonville?
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