Is Vermont's Mental Health Crisis Training For Police Working?

May 15, 2017

It always makes the headlines when a police officer shoots someone who is undergoing a mental health crisis. But when the police defuse a potentially violent situation, the news doesn't travel as far.

Law enforcement officials and mental health advocates say the state could do a better job tracking how police departments are using the mental health crisis training they have received.

The state doesn't track how the police are doing interacting with people with mental health issues — unless the situation escalates or ends fatally. And now there is a growing call to improve the reporting to get a better handle on what's working, and what's not.

A few months ago, the Brattleboro Police Department was able to de-escalate a situation involving an individual with known mental health issues who had barricaded himself inside his house with a weapon.

It was the middle of the day on a quiet but densely packed street, and Brattleboro Police Lt. Mike Carrier says it was a tense scene.

After about an hour, the subject was able to get into a car on his own and get to the hospital to receive the treatment he needed.

And that, Carrier says, is the outcome the police hope to reach every time using the mental health crisis training they have received.

"We were able to get him the services that he needed for that day. And that's the bottom line," Carrier says. "Everybody was safe and nobody was hurt and everybody went home that day. And that's the ultimate goal."

Since 2004, Vermont police recruits have received training in how to deal with people suffering through a mental health crisis. But even with the training, sometimes things go badly, and there have been some high-profile incidents when deadly force was used. Those cases are fully investigated.

But when the training works, and the police talk down someone going through a mental health crisis, often the incident is not widely reported. And now there is a growing recognition that there could be lessons learned from these success stories.

AJ Ruben is with Disability Rights Vermont, and he was on an advisory group that recently published a report on the state's mental health crisis training program.

The group found that there are a lot of inconsistencies in the ongoing training and cooperation between police departments and their local mental health agencies.

"[T]he issue of people with mental health conditions and law enforcement is getting more and more important to the overall community, and so ... law enforcement officers are paying more attention to it." — AJ Ruben, Disability Rights Vermont

The report called for some kind of an entity that could review the good and bad outcomes to help develop best practices.

"I think it's an open question how effective the training has been, and I think there's a lot more room for more evaluation," Ruben says. "But what we know is that the issue of people with mental health conditions and law enforcement is getting more and more important to the overall community, and so there's more concern about it and the law enforcement officers are paying more attention to it."

And lawmakers are paying attention too.

Earlier this year, the Legislature voted in favor of a bill that would set up a Mental Health Crisis Response Commission. Rep. Anne Donahue, a co-sponsor of the bill, says the commission will mainly review the interactions that don't go well.

But Donahue also hopes the commission can look at how law enforcement is doing on a statewide level to improve the interactions with people who are showing signs of mental illness.

"The bill also is trying to get the word out to encourage first responders and law enforcement to refer the good outcome cases," says Donahue. "And then the commission can make a decision about selecting a few to review. We know there are good outcomes, and we want more of them to turn out that way."

Back in Brattleboro, Capt. Mark Carignan says it would make sense to hear how other departments are using their training.

"We are going to welfare checks, to folks that either have substance abuse problems or mental health problems. It's something that we're doing regularly, and a skill that the officers are using pretty regularly." — Capt. Mark Carignan, Brattleboro Police Department

Because Carignan says his officers are using those skills, and there are successes and failures beyond the incidents that get out of control and make their way into the news.

"So the 'guy with the gun' thing is the one that makes it in the paper," Carignan says. "But these skills, the officers use them every day. Easily several times a week, we are going to welfare checks, to folks that either have substance abuse problems or mental health problems. It's something that we're doing regularly and a skill that the officers are using pretty regularly."

If Gov. Phil Scott signs the bill, the new 10-member Mental Health Crisis Response Commission would include members from the Attorney General's office and the Department of Mental Health, along with a state's attorney and law enforcement officials.

The legislation charges the commission with holding its first meeting before Sept. 30, 2017.