November 25, 2014
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1,200 mental health calls per year require special police training

Last year, the Warwick Police Department received 1,200 calls, roughly one per shift, related to mental illness. In recent months, police have dealt with three major cases that stemmed from mental illness: a lockdown at John Brown Francis Elementary after a teen wielded a baseball bat; a negotiation at a Valero gas station with an armed man; and most recently, an on-foot chase of a naked man who ran screaming through Wal-Mart.

Captain Joseph Coffey, who works extensively in the field of mental illness response and training, said cases like they’ve seen in recent weeks are rare.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of mental illness calls do not involve violence,” he said.

Last week, Coffey was in Charlestown helping to train other officers in mental illness response. Coffey said part of the training is to raise awareness. He reviews the most common types of mental illness, like depression, anxiety and even eating disorders, with the trainees. He then delves into more serious forms of mental illness, like psychosis and bipolar disorder.

“They must look at and take in all the facts, signs and symptoms,” he said.

Coffey said he became interested in the field because of past experiences with individuals suffering from mental illness. He also worked in corrections for some time, and realized that the officers who first dealt with mentally ill criminals were the key to the individual’s later care and treatment.

“The first person to come in contact with them, often the officer, has the most reliable information to provide,” he said.

The officer’s training and response can be the deciding factor whether the perpetrator goes to jail or gets the appropriate medial treatment they require.

Officer Matthew Moretti served as the negotiator for the incident at the Valero gas station on Post Road on May 27. At approximately 4:10 p.m. David Lima entered the store wielding a knife and instructed everyone else to leave.

When Moretti heard the call had to do with Lima, he responded. Moretti, who has been specially trained in negotiation by the FBI, had dealt with Lima before, and knew that his training could be of use.

When Moretti arrived on the scene, Lima was the only person inside the Valero gas station. Lima approached the window of the station, showing the knife pressed to his throat.

“He appeared to be unstable,” said Moretti. “It seemed he was intoxicated.”

Lima later admitted he had been drinking, and also explained to Moretti that he was having family issues and wanted medical help. Moretti’s family called police to inform them he was off his medication.

“He didn’t want to hurt anybody,” said Moretti. “And he didn’t want to hurt himself.”

Moretti first spoke with Lima through the door of the building, and then contacted him over the phone. Moretti said it took 40 minutes to coax Lima out of the building with his hands up.

“I told him if he didn’t come out with the knife, I would go with him to the hospital,” said Moretti. And that’s just what Moretti did. “I rode with him in the ambulance.”

Moretti has been on the force since 2007 and received his FBI training in negotiation in 2010. This is the second major negotiation he has done.

Although Moretti said his stress level heightened during his negotiation with Lima, he said he didn’t feel anxious or nervous.

“You have to keep your composure,” he said. “It becomes like second nature.”

Moretti said the key to dealing with mentally ill people in these situations is to calmly level with them.

“You’re interviewing people in a crisis state,” he said. “We’re trained to break that down … to speak to them and resolve it … You’re an authority figure, but as long as you talk to them as a person, you can get them to listen.”

Assuaging their fears is another key, said Coffey.

“Typically fear is a factor in their motives,” said Coffey.

“They’re responding and reacting to fear, and that may lead to criminal activity.”

Coffey said mentally ill people can be responding to voices in their head, or have a belief perception someone or something is out to do them harm. Typically, said Coffey, friends and family are already trying to get the mentally ill person help.

Because mental institutions have been shut down, and most people with mental illness are integrated into society, Coffey said police must be trained to respond to these types of calls regularly. The problem is that mental illness calls are not always initially discernible.

“It’s unlike anything else we do in policing,” said Coffey, who said it’s not like elderly or domestic abuse, when dispatch can tell immediately what type of personnel to send. That’s why it’s important for all officers to receive training in the area.

Dee Tavares, program manager of emergency services at the Kent Center, said they work very closely with the Warwick Police Department on officer training.

The training ensures officers know how to prevent situations from escalating. Tavares said they participate in role-playing exercises to learn how a mentally ill person’s response time will be different. Officers also learn to individualize treatment of perpetrators, whether they bypass a visit to the station to prevent a crisis, or, like Moretti, accompany them to the hospital.

“Officers are in the front line, they see and get the calls before we do,” said Tavares.

Coffey knows the officer’s response is key to the individual’s treatment.

“How do they get through the system?” said Coffey. “It really starts with me.”

David Lauterbach, president and CEO of the Kent Center, said the Warwick police have done a terrific job handling the most recent incidents with the mentally ill.

“Police have a tremendously difficult job,” he said. “If nobody was hurt, they handled it well.”

Aside from one officer who was hit by the baseball bat-swinging teen, no one was harmed during the incidences in the past month. The three individuals were all brought to the hospital for evaluation and treatment after they were apprehended.

“We don’t compromise the officer’s safety,” said Coffey. “If there are danger signs, the officers will follow [with] appropriate force.”

However, Coffey said officers typically rely more heavily on communication than force in such circumstances.

Moretti said these situations, like the incident at the Valero, are unusual.

“This is something that doesn’t happen often, and we deal with people with mental illness on a daily basis,” he said.

“This happens over and over,” said Lauterbach, regarding officers’ ability to discern between someone acting criminally and someone with a mental illness.

Typically, after a mentally ill person is evaluated, they will be treated with medication.

“Major mental illness responds well to medication,” said Lauterbach. “If people go off their medication, the illness reappears.”

Coffey said he hopes there is more follow-up with mentally ill persons involved in crime in the future, that way the police can keep better tabs on their activity and health. The Kent Center and Warwick police hold regular meetings, usually once every month and a half, to discuss police training and response.


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