NO ASYLUM ; MENTAL HEALTH IN THE '90S Series: No Asylum: Mental Health in the '90S Part One of a Two-Part Series {TYPE} NO ASYLUM MENTAL HEALTH IN THE '90S

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Increasingly, police responding to calls discover they involve the mentally ill. Officers, with little formal training to deal with bizarre behavior, often feel overwhelmed.

Police have increasingly become the reluctant responders of first and last resort for people in psychiatric crisis.

It's a job for which they're poorly trained. The results can be deadly.

Last Oct. 20, St. Louis police answered a disturbance call at the home of 47-year-old Randolph Vance. They arrived to find him hallucinating and delusional. He was convinced that someone was trying to kill him.

Officers didn't know that Vance was a paranoid schizophrenic - a person whose illness makes him prone to baseless beliefs that others are out to get him. They didn't realize that he had stopped taking his medicine, or that he had smoked crack cocaine earlier in the day.

As first two and then four officers struggled to restrain Vance, he collapsed and died on the front lawn of his house in the 5100 block of Kensington Avenue. Relatives and friends later charged that police beat Vance to death, but a grand jury refused to act on those allegations.

On Monday, police mistook a 19-year-old mentally retarded man for a burglar when they answered a call at his house in the 3400 block of Oregon Avenue. They hit him at least twice in the head with nightsticks and used pepper spray to subdue him. Gregory Bell suffered cuts on his head, bruises on his face and a fractured ankle. His family says Bell has the mental capacity of a 7-year- old.

Exactly how often police find themselves in such situations is anyone's guess. There are no reliable national statistics.

What is known is that about 5 million Americans - 2.8 percent of the population - suffer from severe mental illness like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

It's conservatively estimated that more than 100,000 individuals with schizophrenia are living in homeless shelters and on the streets - more than live in all the nation's mental hospitals. Even more are believed to be in jails and prisons. Most pose no threat to anyone. But a minority refuse to take their medications, abuse alcohol or illegal drugs or have never been treated.

Memphis, Tenn., is one of only a handful of cities that have tried to track police interaction with these people. The effort started in 1987 after officers shot and killed a man in a public housing complex who was threatening to take his own life. The shooting led to the creation of a model police program for helping people with mental illness.

Since 1987, Memphis police have recorded a 97 percent increase in calls involving the mentally ill.

The number is also increasing in St. Louis, but no one knows by how much.

Although many kinds of calls bring police here in contact with the mentally ill, they track just one type - people taken to hospitals for evaluation.

Those calls rose by about 3 percent between 1990 and last year, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"I've seen an increase in the number of people who display signs of mental illness. There just seems to be more and more of it out there," said Capt. Joseph Richardson, a patrol commander in south St. Louis.

Police often treat the mentally ill with compassion and common sense. But the sheer number of such cases, and their complex nature, has left them overwhelmed.

"I think we're in desperate need of a crisis response team to take this out of police hands - because it really doesn't belong there - and put it in the hands of people who know how to deal with it," Richardson said. "Maybe the police have just lost confidence in the system. When we have people we're constantly coming into contact with who are problems in the neighborhoods, something's wrong."

An Unraveling Safety Net

Evidence of the system's failure is everywhere to see.

* It can be found in police logs that show officers inundated with calls involving the mentally ill. …