Allegheny County Teaches Police to Spot Mental Illness, Speeding Treatment

By Puko, Tim | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 5, 2009 | Go to article overview

Allegheny County Teaches Police to Spot Mental Illness, Speeding Treatment


Puko, Tim, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


When Rudy Thornhill grabbed a knife on a tumultuous night last fall, his mother feared he might hurt himself, and she didn't know what to do but to call for police.

When police arrived at their Penn Hills home, they came in holding rifles at their sides, Linda Thornhill said.

It was a panicked, traumatic experience for a family rocked by Rudy's internal struggles.

Rudy, 20, has spent most of his life dealing with attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression and sleep disorders, and much of the past year mourning his father's death.

Police didn't know about this before they drew their guns -- but they didn't ask, either, Linda Thornhill said.

Rudy left peacefully when the officers returned a second time without guns. No one was hurt, and he eventually got the treatment he needed. But his mother shudders when she thinks about how differently it could have turned out.

Allegheny County officials are working -- with Linda's help -- to try to prevent just these kinds of scenes and get quicker help to people suffering from behavioral disorders.

The county Department of Human Services has worked for three years to train Pittsburgh and some suburban police to better recognize mental illnesses. Officers are being trained in crisis intervention, and given places to take people for treatment instead of just throwing them in jail. That helps police get back on the street faster to deal with crime.

"I know they don't have a lot of time to ask questions, but, with the training, they would know exactly what to ask," said Linda Thornhill, a parental adviser for the crisis intervention program's developers. "I hope that it really helps ease the tension between families and police. I'm hoping that some understanding comes about how hard this is on everybody."

The effort started with a $250,000 federal grant in 2006. It has drawn national attention and $101,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to expand to help children with mental illness. County officials are applying for more money with the hope of expanding training for suburban police and school officials, and training to help veterans in 2010.

The program is designed to be effective on several levels. Supporters say it more quickly connects people with treatment. It reduces jail crowding and court costs by redirecting people who commit minor crimes for which they receive citations, or no crimes at all. It frees police from overseeing mental health screenings that could hold them for hours.

"The crisis intervention team is one of the greatest programs that we have right now," said Amy McNicholas Kroll, the Human Services Department's director of justice-related services, which oversees the program. "We really feel if you can stop anyone from penetrating the criminal justice system from the very beginning, that is the biggest ... savings."

By collaborating with police, the courts, schools and health centers, the crisis intervention program is the kind of preventive strategy that resulted from long-term reform at the department, said outside observers who often partner with it. Once known for a troubled child-welfare system and angry conflicts with people it served, Human Services has become a model for effective, efficient care, they said. …

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