Earlier this month, Paterson police killed a partially naked man who suffered from mental illness. A similar incident occurred in March, in Toms River. But law enforcement encounters with these special-needs individuals don’t have to end this way.
In fact, the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma is scheduled today to recognize a half-dozen law enforcement entities that have helped improve interactions between uniformed officers and individuals with mental illness in an effort to avoid these violent scenarios and, if possible, connect those in need with real help.
Techniques that de-escalate tension
The 2017 Ambassador Awards will honor police officers, a prosecutor, a police department and a state-wide training program for their work to improve awareness of mental-health challenges and promote techniques that can de-escalate tense situations and avoid violent police encounters. Past honorees have included members of the business community and faith-based programs, among others.
“So many of these tragedies that occurred resulted from ignorance and lack of understanding on both sides,” explained Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies. “Why should people and their family members lose lives because of these misunderstandings?” said Wentz, who is an original member of the council formed in 2004 by then Gov. Richard Codey, a longtime state senator who has prioritized mental health issues.
In addition to reducing violence, better communication between law enforcement and mentally ill individuals can help connect those in need with proper treatment — instead of landing them in jail or in a hospital emergency room, Wentz explained. Many jail facilities lack proper mental healthcare systems, she said, and a hospital trip can often exacerbate psychiatric symptoms. What’s more, “Treatment costs a fraction of what it costs to put someone in a hospital or incarcerate them,” she added.
According to a December 2015 report from the Treatment and Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit group that promotes timely, effective mental health treatment, individuals with a mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police stop than other citizens. They make up one in 10 law enforcement calls and a quarter of all fatal police encounters, the group found.
Training for law enforcement officials in New Jersey and other states has long included modules on crisis intervention, which include encounters with mentally ill individuals. In 2000, Gloucester County incorporated specific mental illness training in its police academy and Prosecutor Sean Dalton — slated to receive an Ambassador Award today — expanded this effort to take a broader look at mental health challenges within law enforcement. A committee he founded in 2003 continues to meet today.
The work in Gloucester County led to a partnership with the Mental Health Association in Southwestern New Jersey and a new community-policing model based on a program developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in conjunction with police officials and academics in Memphis, TN, in 1988. This approach involves creating a crisis intervention team with police, mental health professionals, and emergency responders that can educate law enforcement and community members and respond to emergencies as needed.
By 2007, the South Jersey initiative had blossomed into a statewide program, the New Jersey Crisis Intervention Team Center of Excellence, which trains law enforcement groups, advocates for mental health resources, and helps families and individuals connect with treatment. Since then, CIT-NJ — also slated to receive an Ambassador Award – has led dozens of departments through the 40-hour training course designed to help them recognize the symptoms of mental illness and work to de-escalate the intensity of any interactions.
Statewide training program
The state attorney general’s office has also worked with experts in the Department of Human Services, which oversees the council, to develop a statewide training program to improve law enforcement interactions with individuals with a range of special needs, officials said. So far, 800 instructors have learned new techniques to identify various conditions or concerns — including suicidal tendencies, psychotic episodes, and drug-induced delirium — and safely interact with these people, and, if possible, connect them with mental health treatment or other resources.
Starting this year, all police officers in New Jersey will be required to take a six-hour continuing education course on community law enforcement protocols, thanks to a directive issued last fall by Attorney General Christopher Porrino. This course, which will be part of police academy curriculum next year, includes the special-needs training created two years ago with the DHS.
Also to be honored
Other law enforcement entities scheduled to be honored at today’s event, in Monroe Township, include: