Police Struggle with Approach to the Mentally Ill ; Recent Killings Have Led to Calls for Better Tracking and Treatment of the Mentally Ill and More Training for Officers

By Adelle Waldman Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Police Struggle with Approach to the Mentally Ill ; Recent Killings Have Led to Calls for Better Tracking and Treatment of the Mentally Ill and More Training for Officers


Adelle Waldman Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Loretta Cerbelli lost her son Kevin six years ago when the delusional 30-year-old walked into a police station in New York's borough of Queens and stabbed an officer without provocation. Less than two minutes later, other officers shot him to death.

Sue Nickerson lost her son three years ago. A police officer in Centreville, Md., Michael Nickerson answered a call about a noise disturbance in a trailer park and was shot and killed by a mentally ill man.

It seems unlikely that the mother of a slain officer - whose surviving son is also a police officer - and the mother of a man killed at the hands of police would see eye to eye.

But in different states and by different means, Loretta Cerbelli and Sue Nickerson are fighting for a common cause: Both want better tracking and treatment of the mentally ill and more training for police officers who deal with them. "Police officers should be on alert when they get a call" concerning someone who is mentally ill, says Ms. Nickerson, head of the Maryland chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors. "Then maybe they could defuse the situation."

In Philadelphia last month, Julio Morais clashed with officers who were called to his apartment to help commit him to a mental hospital. Mr. Morais stabbed an officer and was subsequently shot in the head. It was the third time in six months that a mentally ill person was killed by Philadelphia police. Just before Christmas last year, officers shot and killed a woman who had been running naked down a street and who had come at them with a knife.

These deaths might have been avoided if police had been better trained, says Susan Rogers, director of special projects for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

"Police officers don't want to kill the mentally ill," Ms. Rogers says. "They are responding out of fear."

Although the Philadelphia Police Department did not return calls for this story, officers have said that the killings appear to have been justified.

Such shootings occur around the country with a frequency that alarms advocates of the mentally ill.

In part, it's because more mentally ill people are on the streets than ever before - 500,000 more today than there were in the 1960s, when it was easier to commit them to institutions, says James Fyfe, deputy commissioner for training with the New York Police Department. Mr. Fyfe says NYPD dispatchers take a call from an emotionally disturbed person, or an EDP in police lingo, every 7.3 minutes.

People on both sides agree these individuals can be as dangerous to the public and police officers as rational criminals. But advocates say different police tactics could greatly reduce the likelihood of violence.

Much of what police officers are trained to do in dealing with rational criminals is dangerously wrong when it comes to the mentally ill, said Ron Honberg, legal director of the National Association for the

mentally ill.

"Closing in on someone, sending out a SWAT team - these are prescriptions for disaster," he says. When officers "learn to keep their distance and talk soothingly, it significantly cuts down the chance of escalation."

Many in law enforcement agree.

Some large cities have trained officers to deal with the mentally ill and work in collaboration with mental health agencies, a model that was pioneered in Memphis, Tenn. …

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