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Mental illness: More police learning to de-escalate~ RH October 25, 2015

Mental illness: More police learning to de-escalate
By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli
STAFF WRITER | October 25, 2015

Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo Jamie Mills and his mother Karen Marino recline in the leaves at their Poultney home.


On the night he was arrested for assault at the Fair Haven Union High School football game, Jamie Mills said he was caught in a spiral of panic and confusion, and begged Fair Haven Police to call his mother.

“I was so afraid,” said the 20-year-old Poultney resident..

Mills and his girlfriend Brandi Goyette said his body was shaking uncontrollably and he was sobbing.

“I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to go to jail. My head’s not right, my head’s not right, I need help. I need my mom,’” Mills said.

Scott J. Alkinburgh, the Fair Haven Police school resource officer, who was at that game in August, called for backup from Sgt. Dale Kerber.

“I could see that Mills appeared agitated and upset,” Alkinburgh said in his report.

By the time Kerber arrived, Goyette said, Mills was sobbing. The more he sobbed, the more the officer appeared irritated, she said.

“At one point he got so mad that he said … ‘If you don’t stop it, I will be bringing you to jail,’” she said.

Karen Marino, Mills’ mother, said he is autistic and suffers from Tourette syndrome; he has an IQ of 52.

He perceives the world and the responses of people around him through the filter of his mental illness, she said, and he often interprets words and actions with an alternate lens.

Because of this, certain behaviors by others — touching, yelling, threatening — can trigger an escalated reaction to a situation, she said.

“He needs patience. The strict parent role might work for a normal 19-year-old, but for someone with autism it doesn’t,” Marino said; her son was 19 at the time of the incident.

“The whole, ‘I’m taking you out behind the woodshed to give you a licking’ mentality doesn’t work with Jamie,” she said. “He needs compassion.”

‘Different perceptions’

During his interaction with police, Mills said, he felt trapped, leading to an escalating emotional reaction.

His situation is not uncommon.

People with mental health issues are often misunderstood and mishandled by law enforcement, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank in Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, partnerships between police and social workers around the state are altering the dynamic for people with mental health issues.

“Part of our hope is to reduce the stigma for people experiencing different perceptions of reality,” said Katherine Cook, director of adult mental health and addiction services for Health Care and Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern Vermont.

HCRS has social workers embedded with police departments in Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Springfield, Windsor and White River Junction.

“We work collaboratively with police and go to a scene or situation,” Cook said. “… We offer support in de-escalation. We work as translators.”

The incident at the Aug. 28 Fair Haven football game is an example of how encounters with law enforcement and people with mental health issues can go wrong.

“If they had just taken him to the emergency room or called me …” Marino said.

Kerber and Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

On the night of Mills’ arrest, what some might perceive as a typical boyfriend, girlfriend and ex-girlfriend encounter among teens was not his interpretation of events.

“A boy that used to date his girlfriend came up to her and gave her a hug. … Jamie felt his girlfriend was in danger and lashed out at the boy,” Marino said, adding that her son thought the other boy was taunting him.

Mills was taken to the Fair Haven Police Department, where he was fingerprinted and an arrest photo was taken, his mother said.

The police affidavit said Mills was charged with misdemeanor simple assault. The charge carries a potential one-year sentence.

His arraignment is at 9 a.m. Monday in Rutland criminal court.

Tactical disengagement

A new trend in policing, sometimes called tactical disengagement, is increasingly used in cases of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.

“If you can calm the situation down — slow things down, talk in a quiet way — and walk away from a minor confrontation, and nothing bad happens when you leave,” Wexler said, “that may be a better outcome than forcing a confrontation over a minor conflict.”

Better outcomes can start at the point of officer dispatch, he added.

“We need to train dispatchers to let officers know the call involves a person with mental health issues,” he said. “The work of 911 call takers and dispatchers is critically important. Officers need as much information as possible before they arrive at the scene, so they can think about their options and plan a response.”

In Burlington, the Howard Center Street Outreach Program provides a social worker for the police department around the clock, seven days a week.

“We are embedded at the police department, we go to roll calls, go out on calls. We are trying to reduce the reliance on law enforcement for social service problems,” said Matt Young, clinician and supervisor of the program.

“Any call with a social service component, we respond with them,” he said. “We can settle someone down. ”

Officer Misty Klementowski in Rutland City works closely with embedded social worker Alecia Armstrong, who goes out on calls with city police.

“I can say Alecia is wonderful,” she said. “I do notice a difference (when she is there). Everyone’s not comfortable with someone in uniform and when they see her they are not as intimidated, and they tend to latch on to her. She’s great.”

This summer Klementowski, Armstrong and a few other officers from the department attended the FBI’s crisis negotiation training.

“It’s about learning how to pick up on cues,” she said. “It’s about patience, listening and not being so quick to arrest someone. Through the training we learned how to listen to what they (people with mental health issues) say, to let them vent about what they want.”

Klementowski shared a story about a call. “A woman was throwing things and smashing a bike. Instead of arresting her right away, I got her talking about why she was doing it,” she said. “It’s about working together.”

A mother’s plea

After the Fair Haven incident, Marino filed a written complaint to a long list of federal, state and local law enforcement leaders and advocacy groups, including the Vermont attorney general, Rutland County state’s attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice, Fair Haven Police, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Disability Rights Vermont, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

She said only a handful responded and few had little to offer. Fair Haven’s police chief told her that her son was “being mental,” Marino said.

Sanders’ staff replied by email that they appreciated her letter and it would help with future legislative decisions.

Disability Rights Vermont is offering technical assistance to the public defender’s office, which contacted Marino about Monday’s arraignment.

Marino said what is hard for her and her son is that he had treated with kindness while a student at Poultney High School. He graduated this past spring.

“He’s loved in this community,” Marino said. “They (young people with mental health issues) are pampered and protected while in school and then they graduate and there is no forgiveness, no accomodating.”

Marino said she hopes her son’s encounter with police brings a greater awareness of what the mentally challenged face every day.

“The crime Jamie really committed was being mentally challenged in public, or simply, public retardation,” Marino said. “This infuriates me. It’s similar to how African-Americans are charged with pretty much doing anything while being black. … This is the world we live in.”




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