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Cops changing approach to mental-illness situations

Sunday, March 27, 2016

By Ben Kleine ~ Southeast Missourian


Myron Todd works on a charcoal drawing Tuesday at The Gallery of Inspiration. Todd was diagnosed with several mental disorders when he was a teen and eventually was imprisoned for several years on a drug conviction.

Myron Todd believes consistent interactions with police during his youth pushed him toward crime.

Todd said he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, attention deficit disorder, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder, the last of which emerged after he went to prison. As a teenager during the late 1980s, Todd said he always was hyperactive and had a tendency toward erratic behavior, although he specified he never was violent. He smoked marijuana to self-medicate.

Todd was living in Scott City at the time, and he received what he described as harassment from police — Scott County sheriff’s deputies, in particular.

“When I was a teenager, just walking down the road, I’d get pulled over five or six times,” Todd said. “They were always accusing me of things I had nothing to do with. ... It was all because of my mental-health diagnosis. I’m a weirdo. I’m the one pulling off crazy stunts.”

He was accused of crimes so often, at some point he decided to turn to crime, he said. He was convicted of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute in April 1997.

Myron Todd works on a charcoal drawing Tuesday at The Gallery of Inspiration.

A Scott County Sheriff’s Department public information officer said deputies had consistent interactions with Todd when he was younger and said he was involved with the drug trade. The officer said Todd’s assertion those interactions were unfounded or they were harassment is false.

Todd said policing has changed, and there is more of an emphasis to get people struggling with mental illness the help they need.

“If I would have gotten help back then, I would have never done anything,” he said.

Todd said he has avoided his former criminal life since his release from prison in the early 2000s. He has focused on mostly painting and drawing, and he has been a frequent contributor at the Gallery of Inspiration.

Law-enforcement agencies in Cape Girardeau County and Perry County had their first crisis-intervention team training in early February. Scott County law enforcement agencies are scheduling their first such training in the coming months. Some of the goals of crisis-intervention team training are to de-escalate a mental-health crisis to a peaceful resolution and get people the help they need.

“Our goal is try to divert people with mental health issues out of the justice system,” St. Louis County Sgt. Jeremy Romo said.

Romo is the leader of the full-time crisis-intervention team in St. Louis County, and he was instructor for training sessions in Cape Girardeau on Feb. 11 and 12. St. Louis County has had a crisis-intervention team since 2004, and police use of force has dropped to just 1 percent in mental-health crisis scenarios.

At the training, which the Southeast Missourian was not allowed to attend, Romo conducted role-playing exercises that included ways to de-escalate a situation. One scenario they practiced was a domestic dispute, with one half of the couple going off his or her medication.

“The first couple of days, we give a broad overview of mental-health diagnosis,” Romo said. “Now that you’ve been able to identify someone, how do we engage this person safely for them and safely for us?”

Romo’s primary advice was officers take their time and try to present a calm, reassuring presence when possible. The training was meant to educate officers to the body language and actions that may accompany a certain mental-health crisis. For instance, a person may be demonstrative with his or her hands — officers could interpret that as a sign of agitation, but it may be just a symptom of a mental illness.

“They may be speaking fast; speak to them where you want them to be,” Romo said. “Respond to their base human needs; value the way they feel.”

Using the right kind of language also was valued. In many scenarios, as Cape Girardeau Sgt. Adam Glueck attested, people in crisis may be much more of a threat to themselves than others, as police often encounter people who are suicidal.

Jennifer Huffman, chief executive and president of the Cape Girardeau chapter of Survivors of Loved Ones to Suicide, gave a presentation at the Cape Girardeau crisis-intervention team training. Huffman said she was asked by an officer at the scene of her mother’s suicide, “Did you not see warning signs?” Huffman blamed herself, and she said the officer’s comments prolonged her grief to seven years.

“The numbers are rising. The numbers are rising in our area,” Huffman said of suicides (in 2013 there were 958 suicides in Missouri). “We need people who can defuse a situation.”

Sue Floyd, leader of the Depression and Bipolar Support group, praised Cape Girardeau police in one interaction she saw at her apartment complex. The man had threatened her and ended up on his balcony. Police talked him off the balcony, and she said officers remained calm even after the man hit one of them.

“I haven’t heard any complaints about the police force,” Floyd said. “They want to help people. ... A lot of times, they take them to the ER.”

The actions police take depend largely on the situation. Glueck said police can opt to put a person in touch with a caseworker from the Community Counseling Center, convince a person to take a voluntary commitment to a hospital, and they can opt for a court-ordered involuntary commitment. Those options only apply when a serious crime has not been committed.

If somebody steals a car while he or she is in a mental-health crisis, that’s a borderline scenario that could elicit an arrest or treatment options, depending on how the victim feels. Any violent crime likely would merit an arrest because the person is a danger to others.

“If somebody commits a crime, we still have to do our job,” Glueck said. “If we respond to somebody’s house, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to take them to jail. We may if it’s warranted. ... We have to look at all the information we have.”

Cape Girardeau police took 191 people with a “perceived mental illness” to Southeast Hospital from 2011 to February. Transporting the patient would be the first step to a voluntary or involuntary commitment. One problem law-enforcement officers face when considering involuntary commitment is the limited number of beds around the state.

Sikeston Department of Public Safety Capt. Jim McMillen said officers will take patients as far away as Kansas City and Nevada, Missouri — a six-hour drive. Any further than six hours, and judges decline to sign an order, McMillen said. Before a situation can be worked out, officers may wait with a patient up to two days.

“It’s such a convoluted mess,” McMillen said. “When you know somebody needs help and it takes two days, it’s just abusive. ... We have to find them help somewhere.”

McMillen said the transportation problem began when a hospital in Farmington, Missouri, closed. He added the situation is unfair to the patients, too, because there may not be an easy solution to find transportation back from a place such as Nevada.

“I think it’s absurd,” McMillen said. “It’s been like this since 2004. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

(573) 388-3644

Pertinent address: 40 S. Sprigg St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

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