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April 10, 2014

Police taught to spot signs of psychiatric crisis

NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) — When a 6-foot-5, 270-pound man with a history of violence broke out of a mental health ward near Philadelphia and tried to withdraw money from a bank, a confrontation with police seemed likely.

But Lower Merion Township police officer Matthew Freind used his mental health training to calmly talk to the man and defuse the crisis.

"No force was necessary," Freind said. "He thanked me. He said, 'You're the only person that's ever truly listened to me.' That was a situation where things could've gotten out of hand very quickly."

Sometimes they do, especially if police aren't trained how to respond to the severely mentally ill.

Dozens of mentally ill people die in run-ins with police every year. Last month, a homeless camper in Albuquerque, N.M., was killed in a shooting captured on an officer's helmet camera, sparking an FBI investigation and a protest that forced the city to call out riot police.

Mental health advocates say violent confrontations occur regularly between people with untreated mental illness and officers who often aren't equipped to deal with them. They blame a mental health system whose funding has been severely slashed, thrusting police into the role of first responder.

"We have systematically dismantled the treatment system for people with the most severe mental illness, and that has consequences," said Doris Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va. "We have basically discontinued the hospital option for people who are in psychiatric crisis. What happens instead? They don't get the treatment they need, they continue to deteriorate and at some point, someone calls the police because they're out of control and there's nowhere else to go."

State psychiatric hospitals began closing en masse 50 years ago amid deinstitutionalization, a shift to community-based treatment. But a persistent lack of funding for mental health services has left many without needed support. As a result, people with serious mental illness often wind up homeless or cycle in and out of jail.

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