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Originally published December 17, 2011 at 8:05 PM | Page modified December 17, 2011 at 8:23 PM

Model approach to mentally ill under scrutiny

Seattle police have held a solid reputation for its work with people with mental illness, its programs lauded in some academic journals and even by military researchers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Concerning the Saunders case, for those who've forgotten: Saunders was inside a small... Read more
quotes high and dry - It's a more complicated story than that. It was a combination of... Read more
quotes Retired Detective Bisch Makes quite a leap when he defends SPD history of violence:... Read more

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Seattle police have held a solid reputation for their work with people with mental illness, the department's programs having been lauded in some academic journals and even by military researchers.

But the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)'s review of the Seattle Police Department's use of force, released Friday, may take some of the shine off.

The review, which included 1,230 internal use-of-force reports and hundreds of interviews, depict a department with inadequate training or resources to calm unstable people, resulting in the use of batons and Tasers when talk might have worked better.

The DOJ report found that an estimated 70 percent of use-of-force incidents by Seattle police involve people with mental illnesses or who are impaired by drugs or alcohol. And it faulted officers for often escalating incidents that stem from the type of petty crimes that unstable people are commonly accused of.

"In other words, officers are trained to win conflict, but not how to avoid it," according to the report.

Seattle long ago bought into a national trend of specially-trained officers using "de-escalating" techniques with people in psychosis. Its 40-hour training was cited as the "gold standard" this year by a Department of Defense think tank researching similar training for the military.

But some social-services advocates fear that reductions in the specialized team of officers who deal with people with mental illness have eroded the department's expertise in defusing explosive situations on the street.

The report underscores longstanding concerns, ones that have been complicated by the shrinking public mental-health safety net. The issue intensified after the 2010 shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams, a chronic public inebriate pursued by an officer because he held a knife used for his carvings.

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, addressing the report's broader finding, wrote in an email to officers Friday: "We have many reasons to question the validity and soundness of the DOJ's conclusions."

Physically subdued

In July 2009, Joseph Wilson, a 17-year-old special-education student with mental illness, was stopped by a Seattle police officer for jaywalking near his home on Queen Anne.

Wilson said he did nothing wrong and tried to walk away, but the officer grabbed Wilson's arm and called for backup. As he struggled, arriving officers "held (Wilson's) arms, struck his torso and pushed him to the ground," resulting in a broken nose and concussion, according to a federal civil-rights lawsuit his attorneys filed.

In response to the lawsuit, officers said they simply tried to escort him to the sidewalk for his safety. Force was used only because Wilson resisted, although no charges were filed against him.

Four months later, Wilson was in a car with other teens in the same neighborhood. As officers approached, he got out of the car. Wilson was ordered to stop, but he tried to run away. He was again taken to the ground, injuring his elbow, according to the still-pending lawsuit. He was arrested, but again no charges were filed.

In both cases, the officers were exonerated after the department investigated.

Wilson's case was typical of the incidents cited in the DOJ report.

In one case, a man, holding a stuffed animal, stood in a street, yelling at traffic lights. He sweated profusely, eyes bulging, his talk incoherent. When an officer told him to move, the man turned to walk away.

The officer responded with pepper spray. A chase ensued, and four officers delivered up to 28 punches, knee, elbow or baton strikes within 30 seconds. The man was arrested for pedestrian interference and obstruction, according to the DOJ report. Similar incidents caught on surveillance video — sometimes from patrol-car cameras — were cited by 35 Seattle-area legal, cultural and social-services groups that requested the DOJ investigation.

Among them was the arrest of Daniel Saunders, 46, a mentally ill man who was mistakenly released from jail in June 2009 while being held on burglary and vandalism charges.

When he went to claim his bike from an SPD evidence room, three officers, serving a warrant for his arrest, took him down hard, hitting Saunders with fists, batons, a flashlight and Taser.

The SPD found that use of force justified, and no officers were disciplined, said Saunders' attorney, Andrew Magee.

"Until now, Daniel and I were alone in the world alleging excessive force was used," he said. "Now there's an entity — the DOJ. And that's not a bad third entity."

Training initiative

In 1998, Seattle police followed Memphis, Tenn.'s pioneering Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model and began specially training officers to respond, and de-escalate, incidents involving the mentally ill. The 40-hour training helps officers recognize psychiatric problems and navigate the complex mental-health system.

Seattle's team once numbered about 20 officers. But due to loss of funding, it now consists of just two officers and a sergeant. The unit screens incident reports for signs of mental illness and follows up on the cases, with the intent of helping divert the mentally ill accused of petty crimes out of jail and into treatment.

While the team has shrunk, the department has gone to a broader training approach.

All officers must attend one day of training on mental illness. Officers can volunteer for a fuller, 40-hour training. More than 200 officers — about one-third of the patrol force — have opted to take it, according to the department.

After the Williams shooting, Chief Diaz committed to expand the number of officers who would go through the 40-hour training program.

"We place a really high value on the CIT program. We are proud of it and we are trying to grow it," said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for the department.

The DOJ report found a fraction of Seattle police were responsible for a disproportionate number of use-of-force incidents, raising the question of who is getting trained.

"I think what we really need to do is make sure the officers who most need the training are the ones who get the training," said Amnon Schoenfeld, head of King County's mental-health division.

Several mental-health and homelessness service providers said most interactions with Seattle police are positive. They also lauded a new program that has a full-time mental-health worker working alongside the Crisis Intervention Team officers, providing street-level assessments and helping individuals get proper treatment.

But Mike Johnson of the Union Gospel Mission said the size of the shrunken Crisis Intervention unit is "wildly inadequate."

"In general, homeless persons in the streets of Seattle feel like the police don't exist to help keep them safe," he said. "The police exist to help keep everyone else safe from them."

Nicole Macri of the Downtown Emergency Services Center said the Police Department made other training cuts, including reducing from one week to one day the time new officers spend with social-services providers.

She hopes Seattle police will revisit their approach to mental-health training. "In light of the DOJ report, it may be worth examining whether it's the right approach," she said.

After the Williams shooting, Diaz committed to expand the number of officers who would go through the full, 40-hour training program.

Frequent incidents

Seattle police log about 125 contacts with mentally ill people each week.

Retired Seattle police detective Martin Bisch said he received continual training in his two decades on the 20-member hostage-negotiation team. He recalled talking with a mentally ill man wielding a sword near Pike Place Market for 11 hours.

Contacts with people in psychosis are "volatile situations," he said, but different from incidents involving people who are drunk or high on drugs.

He faults the DOJ report for blending those different situations. And he said the DOJ's review of use-of-force reports was too narrow a view of complex incidents.

"You won't see all the things that led up to the use of force. Maybe it's talking for five, 10, 30 minutes, an hour," said Bisch. "Thirty-two years on the Police Department, I never saw a person go beating on a person because they seemed mentally ill."

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, hopes the DOJ report will force changes that address "a high level of distress and mistrust."

Social-services providers deal daily with people with severe mentally illness, substance abuse or trauma, she said. They've learned valuable lessons about de-escalation techniques, which Eisinger hopes the DOJ report spotlights for police.

"We know you are safer if you have tools that allow you to avoid violence," she said.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206. Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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