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Originally published Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 5:57 PM

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Pilot Shoreline police program seeks to head off troubling encounters with mentally ill

The King County Sheriff’s Office, which patrols Shoreline, has launched a new program in the city designed to connect deputies with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled in an attempt to avoid confrontations with police.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Shoreline residents can call Shoreline police at 206-801-2710.

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In the 12 months since her husband’s death, one Shoreline woman has come to fear living at home.

Her 21-year-old son, diagnosed with high-functioning autism, has long been plagued by bouts of anger and violence — tendencies he used to take out on his father. But now, with his father gone, he has begun directing his anger at his 60-year-old mother.

“Most of the time he’ll just give me a light hit on the arm — it’s just real quick,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “Other times it might be something different.”

Fearful his unpredictable behavior could one day lead to a confrontation with police, the Shoreline woman has registered her son for a new pilot program being created by the King County Sheriff’s Office and directed at the city’s mentally ill and developmentally disabled residents. Through the program, deputies will get to know residents with special needs and help connect them with treatment providers, said Sheriff John Urquhart.

The program, which is being launched in Shoreline only, will include a database of people like the woman’s son.

All too often the unpredictable behavior of some mentally ill and developmentally disabled people has led to violent encounters with law enforcement, Urquhart says. Police, who often have no previous contact with or knowledge of the individuals, are forced to use deadly force when faced with threatening behavior.

Examples of these encounters aren’t hard to find.

In February, Seattle police fatally shot a mentally ill man after his threatening behavior prompted his family to call for help near Carkeek Park. Police said Jack Keewatinawin, 21, had threatened a responding officer with a piece of rebar when they opened fire.

An inquest has been ordered into Keewatinawin’s death.

Last month, an inquest jury found that a Tukwila man was combative, mentally ill and on the verge of being involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility when he died while fighting with police in June 2012. Victor Duffy Jr.’s death was caused by “sudden death associated with the manifestations of excited delirium and following physical restraint,” according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Duffy’s family has filed a lawsuit seeking at least $15 million in damages from the city.

To help avoid such outcomes, the Sheriff’s Office is creating the database to store information on people with severe mental disorders, who are not in treatment, or people who have a history of aggression, or issuing threats of violence. The database would only be available to Sheriff’s Office employees and would serve as a place where deputies could turn for research when responding to 911 calls involving people in crisis or acting in a threatening manner.

“We would go out and proactively establish a rapport with that person or their network of support,” Urquhart said. “We do not want to be in a situation where we are using force.”

Urquhart said that the deputies who establish these relationships will keep an up-to-date file on the person as a way of letting colleagues know what sorts of triggers might help de-escalate a potentially violent situation.

The database is being created in Shoreline under a pilot project, but could eventually be expanded.

Voluntary participation

The Sheriff’s Office provides police services to the city under contract, although officers wear Shoreline uniforms and drive patrol cars marked “Shoreline police.”

The creation of the database, which is part of the new RADAR (Risk, Awareness, De-escalation and Referral) program, is moving forward slowly, Urquhart said.

Participation is voluntary.

Urquhart said he’s aware of the concerns surrounding the creation of a database of citizens, which is why sheriff’s Capt. Scott Strathy, who is leading the program, is meeting with community members, representatives from mental-health agencies, the county prosecutor’s office, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington and political leaders.

“Our goal is to reduce the force we have to use against citizens. It’s an opportunity to look at how do we reduce liability lawsuits,” Strathy said.

Strathy said the principles of the program come from a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police sergeant, Matt Logan, who is also a licensed psychologist.

“He came to find out that people in communities were aware of people who would pose a threat to law enforcement, but they weren’t sharing what they knew,” Strathy said.

At forefront

Logan, who is assisting in the creation of RADAR, said the Sheriff’s Office is one of the first agencies in the U.S. to develop such a program.

“This is not profiling. We are looking at past behaviors by certain individuals,” Strathy said. “We are working with prosecutors, we have met with the ACLU. We want this conversation to go forward. How do we balance the need for public safety and limit the use of force, with people’s right to privacy?”

The ACLU is taking a cautious approach.

Deputy Director Jennifer Shaw wrote in an email that the organization needs to “know more facts to understand the program, its goals, and the database before we would comment for the press about the database. And we certainly hope that the sheriff will listen to our input before launching the program.”

Tracy Jones, program manager for Compass Housing Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works with homeless, mentally ill, drug-addicted clients in King County, said she was surprised it has taken this long for something like RADAR to be created.

“If you treat people with dignity and respect and build a relationship with them you have much less of a need for force,” Jones said.

“De-escalation occurs quicker if you have a relationship with someone.”

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said he appreciates that the program would allow “individual officers will take the time to develop a relationship with people suffering from serious mental illness in their patrol area.”

“That way, if an emergency situation were to occur, the responding officers would include someone with some insight into the family dynamics and the needs of the person in crisis,” Satterberg said. “It is a way to shrink a big city into a series of small towns, where the more we know about the people, the better we can respond.”

Shoreline sheriff’s Sgt. Bruce Bartlett said the heart of the program, having deputies get to know citizens in their patrol area, is nothing new. But the creation of a formal database is.

Bartlett said deputies were recently dispatched to a home where a 23-year-old man with a severe developmental disability was threatening to hurl a computer and printer at other people. While en route to the 911 call, a deputy said that he thought another deputy had experience with the man. That deputy was able to respond to the call and calmed the man down.

“He went into the kid’s room, walked him out to the ambulance and we were able to get that settled with no hands on. Nobody got hurt,” Bartlett said.

The Sheriff’s Office is seeking federal funding for the program. Strathy said they hope to fully launch the program in Shoreline later this year. They are now training seven deputies and a few sergeants to participate.

The Shoreline mother who is struggling with her son’s aggression said that when the program was presented to her she was in full support.

“I had no idea there was something like that going on,” she said. “I think it’s good to have a relationship with people in the police so if I do have to call them it’s not a stranger coming to the house; it’s someone (my son) knows and recognizes.”

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twtitter@SeattleSullivan

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