Plain Press, November 2015 The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio and Disability Rights Ohio held a forum on October 1 to highlight the role of mental health in the reform of the Cleveland Police Department. The forum held at the Max Wohl Civil Liberties Center at E. 45th and Chester featured a panel of advocates for civil liberties and disability rights.
Panel members included: Moderator Kristen Henry of Disability Rights Ohio; Mike Tobin of the U.S. Attorney’s Office; Valeria Harper of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board; and Mike Bricker of ACLU Ohio.
In welcoming participants to the forum, Joselyn Rosnick of ACLU Ohio noted the many mentions of mental health and crisis intervention in the Consent Decree between the Justice Department and the City of Cleveland concerning the use of force by Cleveland Police officers. She noted that on any given day police officers could be interacting with people with disabilities. Rosnick cited the case of a Clevelander experiencing a mental health crisis, Tanisha Anderson, as evidence of the need for appropriate and constitutional response by police to persons suffering from mental illness. Anderson died when a Cleveland Police officer used a take down move when trying to take her to the hospital after a call from her family.
Mike Tobin, a public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said that sitting through the public hearings in preparation for the consent decree “we heard a lot of troubling stuff.” Specific to the use of force by polices officers he said people testified about police officers shooting guns, hitting people, and using tasers on people. In general, the public testimony indicated that police used deadly force and shot too often in circumstances where it was not warranted and their tactics put the public and fellow police officers at risk.
Tobin also noted there were incidents of use of excessive force on people who were mentally ill, or couldn’t respond to police because of a disability. He cited the reason for so much excessive use of force as lack of training of police officers, particularly related to interactions with persons with mental illness.
Tobin says the proposed solution by the consent decree is basic training in Crisis Intervention for all Cleveland Police officers and more intensive training for Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers. Another solution proposed is 24-7 coverage by CIT officers so they are available throughout the city when a crisis occurs.
Valeria Harper, Chief Operating Officer of the ADAMHS Board noted that her organization’s predecessor, the Mental Health Board, began training of Cleveland Police officers in 2004. She said to date, 600 Cleveland Police Officers and dispatchers have been trained. Harper said an advisory committee formed to help respond to the mental health requirements of the consent decree is ahead of schedule. Part of the training involves informing police officers of community resources available to help such as diversion programs and the mobile crisis unit that works out of St. Vincent Charity Hospital.
Harper says Cleveland has a homegrown model for training Crisis Intervention Team police officers. She says a forty-hour one-week class includes allowing police officers to wear headphones that simulate auditory hallucinations. They also have an opportunity for a ride-along to consumer homes with a caseworker. Mental health consumers they visit with range from people that are living their lives and managing their illness well to people that are challenged with extreme symptoms. Harper says mental health consumers are involved in teaching the class and answering questions from officers.
Harper recommended that officers chosen for Crisis Intervention Teams be officers with a commitment. She said screening and selection of officers best suited for the training should occur. Ideally officers should have a background in social work or psychology and be a person that has a passion for this calling, a person that wants to employ the training as a tool to help the community.
Harper also recommended continuous training of police officers. She called for smaller training class sizes – recommending 25 officers rather than the current 40 officers. She also called for revisiting trained officers to see how they are using tools they acquired in classes.
Mike Bricker, Senior Policy Director of ACLU Ohio, talked about the over incarceration of people with mental illness in Ohio’s prisons. He said the state prison system is the largest mental health care provider in the state. Citing national statistics, Bricker said 10% of all police calls involve people with mental illness. Bricker said, “Effective training keeps everyone safe.”
Bricker noted that an incident involving a mentally ill person in Cincinnati in 2001 resulted in a collaborative agreement that required that a Mental Health Response Team be available on every shift in every part of the city. Bricker says the incident involved a person dancing at a White Castle Restaurant. The Mental Health Response Team was not available. The officer responding to the incident used tactics not recommended in a mental health crisis—he called out in a stern loud voice. The situation ended up with mental health consumer being beaten by police as he was being forcibly restrained. The man, who weighed 350 pounds and had heart issues, passed away due to the strain of the confrontation.
Bricker says as a result of the collaborative agreement, Cincinnati now has a Mobile Crisis Team available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is also a round-the-clock phone service, which police can access for advice. The phone service also has potential access to patient information records from which they can tell officers whether a person has a history of mental illness, or not.
Following the panelists’ initial points, there was a discussion of what police training would involve. Tobin said there would be an emphasis on training police in de-escalation of a situation. He said this involves a cultural shift. He cited a case where police called to respond to a mental health consumer in crisis came upon the scene and the initial contact by a police officer was to shout in a loud disrespectful voice “What are you doing here?” Harper said dialogue would have been more appropriate in that situation.
Both Tobin and Bricker said increased community policing would also help offers to know more people in the community and raise their understanding of people in the community.
People in attendance at the forum raised a number of other issues. One issue was the need for police officers to understand the law – especially the rights afforded citizens under the constitution. Another concerned linking jails to mental health services. Harper said 25% of misdemeanors involve people with perceivable mental illness. There was also a call to deal with racism in the Cleveland Police Department.
Tobin said the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland raises issues about the hiring of police officers. Bricker agreed that Cleveland has to do a better job of hiring police officers. He said in the case of Tamir Rice, you had a police officer who should not have been in the department.
In responding to a comment about police actions concerning the 137 shots fired at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams by Cleveland Police officers, Bricker said Cleveland must hold accountable people in the police department when excessive police violence occurs. He said, when there is no punishment, people feel the excessive violence by police has not been acknowledged.
A representative of Rise Up October urged higher standards when hiring police officers. He called for multiple psychological tests and for choosing the best and the brightest as police officers. He said he was tired of “people with substandard IQs with a gun and a badge, running around yelling at people and arresting people.”
Another attendee at the forum recommended that Cleveland look at the Memphis Model developed by Dr. Randy Dupont of the University of Memphis as a way to improve police relations with the mentally ill.