by Cyrus dos Santos
Police officers are frustrated with the lack of resources available to help handle the ever-growing mental health issues in today’s society.
“You really have to be a psychologist,” said Central Connecticut State University Police Sgt. Jerry Erwin. “Because of our current budget crisis in Connecticut, and nationwide, a lot of social services have been cut.” Erwin acknowledged the toll our economy has taken on social programs that many, including law enforcement officials, have relied on.
“The people dealing with these mental health issues don’t get the services they should be getting because of budget cuts,” said Erwin. “Police officers now have to be those people.”
Erwin said, referring to local hospitals, that they get people help through other services. However, once admitted, many end up back on the streets after a short while.
“I’m not blaming the hospitals,” said UConn Health Police Officer Sean Butler. “They do their best.”
Butler said that law enforcement does a great job of identifying mental illnesses and getting those suffering from a mental illness to the hospital, while sharing his dissatisfaction with the status quo.
“We deal with the issues every day, all day. Same people over and over. They go to the hospital and are back, put on the street in hours,” Butler said, while admitting the duration can at times be longer. “But they always end up back on the street and nothing has changed.”
In early 2016, the Connecticut legislature tried to pass House Bill No. 5271 (HB-5271) that focused on law enforcement and their dealings with mental illness. It also would have required all police departments in the state to have an on-call mental health expert available at any time. HB-5271 was defeated in the Appropriations Committee.
On June 7, 2016, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed House Bill No. 5547 (HB-5547) into action. It calls for an assembled task force to investigate the current training curriculum for all police, both incoming cadets and veteran officers.
The bill states as follows: “The task force shall examine: (1) The current basic curriculum and practices, (2) the instruction and delivery of the basic curriculum, (3) the feasibility and desirability of offering training at satellite campuses, and (4) such other topics as the task force deems appropriate relating to police training.”
However, many officers do not believe training is the problem.
“The problem isn’t with law enforcement not knowing how to deal with mental illness. The problem is the massive numbers of people with mental illness on the street, and no place for them to receive long-term care. Years ago, there were multiple long-term care facilities for mental illness. The state closed them. The state needs to bring those facilities back,” said Butler.
The Governor’s office did not respond for comment.
This issue does not stop in Connecticut. It is a story that can be found throughout the United States.
“In my 23 years of police work, I can confidently say that the mentally ill and those suffering from drug addiction have not received the treatment they need,” said retired New York Police Department Sgt. Angel Rosa.
The Brooklyn native echoed Erwin’s claim when he said, “Officers are forced to be psychologists, social workers, parents, friends and the list goes on.”
“City and state governments don’t want to spend the money it takes to help these folks,” said Rosa. “In the end, they spend the money on lawsuits and re-training of officers.”
“What most folks don’t know is that officers are constantly training,” Rosa said, noting that every time something does go wrong, the blame is placed on the training of the officers involved. “Yet that same officer handled hundreds of other [mental illness] cases with no incident.”
In the state of Connecticut, police cadets attend a class designed to prepare them for handling issues surrounding mental health.
“When recruits are going through the academy, there is a specific class, it’s a block of training on awareness of mental health,” said Police Officers Standards and Training Council Certified Instructor Liam O’Brien.
Taking a closer look at the current practice and standards of law enforcement training shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing. At least, that is what Berlin Police Chief Paul Fitzgerald thinks.
“I think it’s valid, the examination of the curriculum,” said Fitzgerald, a member of HB-5547’s task force. “However, I think it’s a response to what’s happening across the nation, not so much what is happening in Connecticut.”
“We’re probably one of the best trained states,” he said, “as far as law enforcement goes, in the country.”
Fitzgerald is also a member of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association (CPCA), a strong opponent of the bill that would have demanded departments to employ mental health professionals to aid officers.
“Really, it was cost,” Fitzgerald said, explaining the CPCA’s issue with HB-5271. “It was an expense that was being forced upon the communities.”
Fitzgerald said, ideally, “We would like to have a mental health person with us when we go on a mental health call. But it’s not really feasible. It is an added burden that’s put on police officers.”
Though the task force is in its infancy, there is hope to find a way to fix the current issues.
“I think everything’s on the table,” said Andrew Clark, director for the Institute for Municipal & Regional Policy at CCSU and member of HB-5547’s task force. “Everything,” includes the topic of mental health, said Clark.
Since the task force’s first meeting on Dec. 6, 2016, they have established a desire to reach out to the communities for feedback, Clark explained.
“One of the things we’re designing is a survey for populations to say, ‘what do you think could benefit police training?’ So, I imagine one of the things that could happen is surveys to communities and constituent groups, like those in the mental health arena that could say, ‘This is needed,’” said Clark.
On Dec. 7, 2016, the U.S. Senate passed the 21st Century Cures Act with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 94-5. It provides $6 billion for public health and medical research and is available nationwide. It was signed into law six days later by President Barack Obama.
According to the Council of State Government Justice Center, the bill covers: “Several criminal justice reform measures related to the issue of mental health, including the enactment of the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act and the reauthorization of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act.”
Despite the claim that Connecticut police officers are some of the best trained in the country, Fitzgerald is not pleased with the support he has seen from the state.
“Currently, the state has cut funding for our training academy,” said Fitzgerald. “The staff down there has been cut because of the budget deficit. Although police are being asked to do more, and do it better, we’re getting less resources in which to train for those situations.”
“The first thing I’d like to see is improved funding for our training,” said Fitzgerald. “I think the task force will also address that, because everyone wants the police officers to be the best that they can be, and if that’s the case, then we need to train them.”
The task force will meet once a month. Their report is due Oct. 1.