Law and disorders: Cops, advocates try to defuse dealings with disabled

One-third to half of those killed by police are disabled, a recent report says. “Our problem isn’t with police,” one mental health advocate says, but both sides say officers need more training. (Photo by Tony Webster via flickr/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – If anyone has reason to be distrusting of the police, it’s Phoenix resident Mary Brncik.

Her son, David, has schizoaffective disorder, which has led to run-ins with officers. He was charged with felony assault for kicking a police officer who was called to his apartment in 2014 and in 2005 – after grabbing a woman’s keys and screaming at her during a schizoaffective episode in a store in Peoria – he was hit with a stun gun six times by four different officers.

It was after the Peoria incident, however, that Brncik began to think that the problem was not the police, or the suspects, but the “fragmented and antiquated” system in which officers interact with disabled people – interactions that can lead to deadly outcomes.

“Our problem isn’t with the police,” said Brncik, who in 2009 formed David’s Hope, a nonprofit that works with police departments to reduce violent encounters between officers and people with mental disabilities.

Such encounters are happening more often than previously thought, according to a March report by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which said disabled individuals “make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.”

What is schizoaffective disorder?

Schizoaffective disorder is a chronic mental condition that affects approximately 0.3 percent of the population. Its direct cause is unknown, but the National Alliance on Mental Illness says symptoms can include:

  • Hallucinations, or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.
  • Delusions, or false, fixed beliefs held regardless of contradictory evidence.
  • Disorganized thinking. A person may switch very quickly from one topic to another or provide completely unrelated answers.
  • Depressed mood. A person with schizoaffective disorder, depressive type, will experience feelings of sadness, emptiness, feelings of worthlessness or other symptoms of depression.
  • Manic behavior. A person with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, will experience feelings of euphoria, racing thoughts, increased risky behavior and other symptoms of mania.
  • That statistic does not shock Brncik. When “access to care is difficult, loved ones will call the police,” who may not know how to safely handle people with mental disabilities when they arrive on the scene, she said.

    Phoenix Police Officer Franklin Marino agrees that handling people with mental disabilities “is not a police matter.”

    “Those who are a danger to themselves and other people should be handled by mental health professionals,” said Marino, a 20-year veteran of the force who serves as secretary of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.

    Jay Ruderman, the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in a phone interview that while the high number of disabled people involved in police shootings was surprising, “people with disabilities are the largest minority group … and are largely segregated.”

    “We see it as a civil rights issue,” Ruderman said. “We want the world to see the disabled community as deserving of basic rights.”

    The report found that because police rarely record whether a suspect has a mental disability, it can make it more difficult to address the problem and get officers the training they need.

    “There’s often very inadequate training,” Ruderman said. “I think some tragedies would be prevented if there were more education.”

    Valley police departments have implemented various programs to try and combat the issue in recent years. For the past 14 years, area departments have used a system known as Crisis Intervention Training to assist in “connecting the person in crisis to services in a more efficient way,” said Sgt. Jonathan Howard, a Phoenix Police Department spokesman.

    Developed in Memphis, Tennessee, CIT aims to “enhance communication, identify mental health resources for assisting people in crisis and ensure that officers get the training and support that they need,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

    Police officers must attend at least 40 hours of training that includes working with mental health experts and people who have experienced mental health issues, lessons in talking down tense situations and scenario-based training.

    Howard said CIT helps all sides by “streamlining … the response to calls that involve the mentally ill.” While the specially trained officers put their CIT lessons to use, the responding officers can “be relieved back to regular radio traffic.”

    But Brncik says CIT alone isn’t enough to protect people with mental disabilities, and “is only intended to train 20-25 percent of officers.”

    “You can request CIT-trained officers, but you’re going to get whoever’s closest,” Brncik said.

    Marino said it is “just another tool in my toolbox.”

    “It’s not a magic cure,” he said.

    Last August, the Phoenix Police Department formed a mental health squad aimed at improving “processes related to calls for service involving people with mental illness or in crisis.” Howard said in an email that the team currently has 10 officers who were chosen based on “background, education, demeanor” and other attributes.

    He said their primary responsibility is to respond to emergency mental health calls.

    “However, they routinely assist with non-emergent orders, suicidal subjects, check welfares, etc., that patrol assesses to have a CIT element,” Howard’s email said. “They also provide follow-up to high-utilizers and high-profile type incidents involving the mentally ill.”

    Since its formation, the team has answered more than 750 calls, none of which has resulted in the use of deadly force, Howard said.

    Brncik said she respects and appreciates efforts made in recent years by police, but there’s still a lack of education about whom to call in mental health emergencies.

    “When someone goes into crisis, people don’t know what to do,” she said.

    That was the case in June 2014, she said, when David Brncik began to show signs of a delusional episode in his apartment. His fiancee called the Crisis Response Network, a hotline Mary Brncik had instructed her to call in moments like this, but police officers were dispatched instead of mental health professionals.

    David was charged with felony assault on an officer in the subsequent confrontation.

    David has been advised not to talk about the incident, which is still in the courts, but Mary Brncik said he could face time in prison on the charges. That possibility keeps her working with police departments in hopes of reducing dangerous encounters between them and the mentally ill.

    “They (police) know that jail is not the best place for someone with a disability to be … but there will never be enough teams for people to access them when they need help,” Brncik said.