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'This is an illness, not a crime': Mental health training vital for officers handling crisis situations like Joshua Barre

Tulsa World - 6/19/2017

The recent police shooting of a mentally ill Tulsa man has elicited criticism of how the situation was handled, but local officials want people to understand there is an underlying problem and make them aware of the mental health training that law enforcement officers receive.

While family members condemn what they perceive to be a failure to help Joshua Barre in the weeks leading to his death, Sheriff Vic Regalado stands by his deputies' actions and their qualifications. Mental health advocates also hope the tragedy spurs further dialogue regarding the need for an improved support system.

The two deputies - who, along with a Tulsa police officer, opened fire on Barre after he walked into a north Tulsa convenience store with two large knives - are part of the agency's mental health unit. The four-person team is largely responsible for carrying out court-mandated civil pickup orders, as they attempted to do with Barre on multiple occasions this month.

Etta Lowe-Barre said she believes her son's psychiatrist requested a court order for him to be picked up and sent for an evaluation after he stopped taking his medication for schizoaffective disorder in April. Deputies William Ramsey and Brandon Walker made several attempts in June to pick him up from his house, and Lowe-Barre handed over her son's keys to help them out.

During the first attempt on June 1, Barre reportedly locked himself in his residence and yelled threats at deputies, who decided to try again on a later date because he didn't pose an immediate threat to the public.

"They had a court order to go and get him, and that's what they should have done," Lowe-Barre said. "I just know it wasn't handled right or my son would be alive and getting treatment today. They knew he was mentally ill. They know the longer people are off their medication, the psychosis gets worse. They should be specially trained for that."

She also didn't understand why the deputies never called Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services for help as they followed Barre from his home to the store where he was shot June 9.

After reviewing reports of the previous visits, Regalado maintained his deputies made the right choice to not escalate the situation by entering Barre's home. He said they had no time to call a mental health professional on the day of the shooting because of the "rapidly evolving situation."

In the past six months, the unit made about 1,420 pickup attempts, of which about 285 were successful. Regalado said the deputies are trained to be selective in choosing the right moment to pick up mentally ill subjects, who often are hallucinating or suffering from psychosis. If deputies feel proceeding could be dangerous - for their safety or that of the individual - but there is no threat to the public, they may choose to leave and wait for a better opportunity.

All Sheriff's Office deputies receive mental-health instruction while at the academy and undergo training each year as required by the Council on Law Enforcement and Education and Training. The four deputies in the mental health unit take additional courses, including noncombative conflict resolution and the identification of mental illnesses.

Although budgetary and personnel issues prevent him from adding a fifth member right now, Regalado lauded the group's efficiency. He said each member was chosen for their temperaments and strengths in decision-making and communication.

"Typically these deputies come into contact with subjects while they're in psychosis and they have to be able to decide oftentimes very quickly whether or not they need to simply walk away or whether the actions of that individual dictate something further," he said. "They have to take not only their safety but the safety of that individual into account."

The sheriff also took issue with a lack of state funding for mental-health treatment. He acknowledged a "significant uptick" in his agency's contact with the mentally ill over the past two decades because of drastic budget cuts and closures of mental health hospitals. He said law enforcement is undertrained and underequipped to handle the influx.

Regalado questioned whether the shooting would have happened if mental health were properly funded and if Barre had had access to full-time inpatient treatment.

"I hope that the one thing that comes out of this is - and that Joshua didn't die in vain - is to realize what the core, fundamental underlying problem is," he said. "It's not law enforcement. In the state of Oklahoma we have cut millions from mental health treatment."

Capt. Shellie Seibert, mental health coordinator for the Tulsa Police Department, said her agency's academy offers 38 hours of education on major mental illnesses, including lectures from outside experts and scenario-based exercises that help officers handle high-stress situations. They're also required by CLEET to dedicate a minimum of two hours of mental health training each year.

Additionally, about 135 officers have received voluntary Crisis Intervention Team training. CIT is a national program dedicated to helping authorities better react to situations involving mental illness. The training is more in-depth than what officers receive at the academy. It also gives them a chance to hear members of the National Alliance on Mental Health talk about their own experiences with law enforcement when they were symptomatic.

Officer Donnie Johnson, who also was involved in this month's shooting, completed his CIT training in January. Although some agencies dispatch CIT officers directly to mental health-related calls, Tulsa's police department does not. Officers volunteer for the training to help them with the high volume of mentally ill subjects they interact with during their normal duties.

Seibert stressed the importance of learning to identify someone who is symptomatic and being able to de-escalate the situation. However, training can only do so much, she said, and officers sometimes are forced to take drastic measures.

"At the end of the day, they're not therapists. They protect the public," Seibert said. "There's a point in time when someone's armed or doing something that's putting someone else in danger - why they're doing that behavior is put on the back burner, and we have to do what we do as police officers. It's a tragedy because this is an illness, not a crime."

Mental Health Association Oklahoma helped bring CIT training to Tulsa Police Department. The Sheriff's Office also has started providing the training to detention officers working in the Tulsa Jail's new mental health pods, and Regalado said there are plans to offer the program to patrol deputies.

Mike Brose, the association's executive director, has advocated for better training and support in the agencies' interactions with the mentally ill and has worked closely with officials to achieve that goal.

Although he agrees with Regalado that more in-house crisis beds are needed for the increasing number of mental illness patients, Brose said there first needs to be more emphasis on community-based services to respond and collaborate with law enforcement in addressing the needs of somebody symptomatic before they reach crisis.

"We don't think it's fair to our law-enforcement people to send them out and deal with these sometimes very complex mental health crisis moments when someone is in the middle of a period of untreated mental illness where they might have delusions or hallucinations," Brose said.

One program that has Brose hopeful is the Community Response Team, a multi-agency collaboration that brings together a paramedic, a police officer and a mental health professional from Family & Children's Services. Once a week, the trio analyzes 911 calls as they come in to identify potential mental-health situations in which they could render services.

The Community Response Team has been in its pilot stage since it started in January. Police are looking to test out the program for 30 days straight to accelerate the process of gathering data and funding.

Brose also places value in the Tulsa Fire Department's Community Assistant, Referral and Education Services (CARES) program, which seeks to pinpoint and prioritize "super-utilizers." Oftentimes someone who makes an abnormal number of calls to 911 is suffering from some kind of mental illness, Brose said. The CARES team strives to form relationships with these individuals and link them up with services in the community.

Brose is hesitant to make a judgment on the Barre shooting while information still is limited. But he does hope to see the community rally together and work to provide law enforcement the support they need.

"When this happened, I thought unfortunately this is going to give us an opportunity to communicate what we are trying to accomplish, and I guess we're going to step it up," he said. "We have to. It's our job. We can't go back to business as usual. We've got to continue to forge ahead together to figure out better ways of preventing these things from ever occurring again."


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