Police train to counter growing number of suicides

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DANBURY, Conn. (AP) — Just before midnight on July 5, a distraught Danbury man paced back and forth in his driveway, pointing a gun first at his head and then at police officers surrounding his home.

He had told his mother earlier that he wanted the police to shoot him.

An officer trained in crisis intervention was part of a team that talked to the 29-year-old for about an hour. The distressed man eventually put down the weapon, which turned out to be fake, and was arrested.

Nearly five months later, the same officer was called to another Danbury home after a woman living in Virginia called police, saying a friend here had threatened to shoot himself.

The officer asked the 36-year-old man whether he had a gun and whether he wanted to hurt himself or someone else. When the man answered no to both questions, police decided he was not a threat to himself or others and left.

Hours later, the man shot himself in the head.

Sometimes officers trained to defuse a crisis are able to prevent a tragedy. Sometimes they can't, however thorough their training.

"We don't have a crystal ball, and that's the scary part," said Danbury officer Jose Agosto Jr., one of 18 Danbury police officers who have completed a special course in crisis intervention.

What's not in doubt is that the need for such training is great, and growing. Law enforcement agencies are swamped with calls about people in some sort of mental health crisis, and the number that involve suicide continues to increase statewide and nationally.

The state medical examiner's office logged 398 suicides in 2015, the highest in 25 years. In Danbury, 15 people committed suicide in 2015, up from just three in 2011, according to police.

Over the last decade, Connecticut police departments have responded by sending hundreds of officers to a five-day, 40-hour class that touches on topics ranging from suicide prevention to the different varieties of mental illnesses.

"Unfortunately, because of the lack of funding that goes into mental health services, police officers often become the gatekeepers of the mentally ill," said Louise Pyers, a mental health clinician who founded the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement. "The extra knowledge in crisis intervention training gives them a lot of power to be able to de-escalate these situations before they get out of hand."

Being able to de-escalate a situation is particularly important when cops are involved.

"The uniform they wear, the gun they have ... all send threatening messages to a person with mental illness, even if they are the kindest police officer in the world," Pyers said. "When people are frightened, people fight back."

The alliance, a nonprofit based in Newington, has partnered with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services for over a decade to conduct the training, which the state has paid for since 2004.

The training was originally developed by agencies in Tennessee to reduce the number of shootings involving mentally ill people.

The New London Police Department was the first to implement the program in Connecticut, in 2000. Today more than 50 law enforcement agencies statewide, including state, municipal and university police departments, have crisis intervention teams. Another 50 agencies are working to create them.

Statewide, about 1,750 officers have completed crisis intervention training since 2004 — and approximately 460 others, including dispatchers, emergency medical services workers and mental health clinicians, have finished the training.

They all have the same goal: to get the mentally ill into the health care system rather than the criminal justice system.

Under state law, they are authorized to take someone to the hospital, voluntarily or not, if he or she has threatened to commit suicide or to injure another person.

Danbury police created a crisis team in 2009. Its officers work closely with a state mental health clinician, who reviews cases and rides with them weekly to check on people who have been in crisis.

On a recent cold morning, Agosto reflected on his training during an eight-hour shift patrolling the streets of Danbury.

He said he didn't realize how complex mental illness can be until he underwent crisis training. Now, with a better understanding of the different kinds of illnesses, he feels more equipped to help people.

"I hope every person that I have an interaction with that I'm able to at least show them there is the possibility of help," he said.

But while officers like Agosto can often defuse the immediate crisis, others must follow up to make sure crises don't recur.

In the case of the 29-year-old man last July, police and a mental health clinician worked with his family to find a bed in a long-term rehabilitation center, police said. The crisis team then persuaded the man's family not to bail him out of jail while the necessary arrangements could be made.

In the case five months later, according to police reports, 36-year-old Michael Johnson downplayed the fears of the Virginia friend who had called police, saying he had no intention of hurting himself and that he had no gun. When they asked whether he wanted to talk to a therapist, he declined, saying he was already seeing one on a weekly basis.

That evening, Johnson's sister, Susan Burke, went to his home, unaware that police had visited just hours before. Burke said her little brother showed her a gun and told her he was suicidal. She tried to get him to give her the clip that held the bullets, but he refused.

Burke and her husband stayed with Johnson for hours — eating Chinese food and watching a movie. When he went outside at one point — to smoke a cigarette, she thought — he used the gun to kill himself.

Cases like Johnson's sometimes prompt second-guessing of police and other authorities, but Pyers said it's important to remember that they can't hope to prevent every tragedy.

"We tell (trainees) we're going to do our best to provide you with enough information to be able to calm a situation, connect that person to services and hopefully keep that person out of jail," Pyers said. "But sometimes someone is going to go ahead and do it and it's not anyone's fault.

"They will save more lives than they will lose," she said.


Information from: The News-Times, http://www.newstimes.com

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MACKENZIE RIGG(Danbury) News-Times


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