One year later, few new policies
Source: The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
Somelocal mental health advocates say little has changed in the year sincethe fatal police shooting of 19-year-old Ryan Salisbury, who advancedon officers with a knife during a psychotic episode at his parents’Eugene home.
Many are frustrated that the police department hasadded another weapon to its arsenal — the controversial Taser — butdone little to improve training for officers who are often the first toencounter people suffering from mental health problems.
“I don’tthink anything has changed yet that would make a difference if a youngperson suffering a mental health crisis faced the same type ofcircumstances Ryan did a year ago,” said Sue Archbald, a retiredelementary school teacher who formed a group to educate emergencyresponders dealing with the mentally ill after the Salisbury shooting.“No policy has changed that I know of. There’s been no additionaltraining that I know of.”
Salisbury had been struggling withbipolar disorder for more than a year and had made previous suicideattempts before the early morning of Nov. 14, 2006, when he suffered apsychotic break and spiraled out of control. When police arrived,Salisbury walked toward them with a knife in his hand, ignoring theirorders to stop and resisting several hits from beanbag rounds.
An officer shot him five times as his parents watched from a bedroom window. He died in the family’s driveway.
Theshooting sparked community discussion about the training and equipmentavailable to Eugene police officers, and limitations posed by thecounty mental health system.
The city’s police commission drew upa policy for a pilot program that will arm 30 officers with Taser stunguns by the first of the year.
Jeff and Denise Salisbury, Ryan’s parents, have said the device might have saved their son’s life.
Alsoon the table is a proposal to create teams of officers speciallytrained to interact with people suffering from mental health issues.Known nationally as crisis intervention teams, the involved officerswould focus on verbally de-escalating crisis situations to bring aboutnonviolent conclusions.
Police Chief Robert Lehner has said hisofficers will receive some kind of crisis intervention training, buttime, money and a new curriculum at the state’s police academy willdetermine exactly how and when it is done.
“I think it will besooner rather than later,” Lehner said. “It’s a good proposal. We hadbeen and always will be looking for good training opportunities for ourstaff.”
Lane County Mental Health Program Manager Al Levine said progress is being made in other areas, as well.
Hisdepartment joined with Archbald’s group and the National Alliance onMental Illness to send three members of the Lane County Sheriff’sOffice to a national crisis intervention conference in August. Earlierthis year, they hosted training for 29 emergency responders thatfeatured a panel of mental health patients and their families.
Inaddition, the county’s mental health advisory body has named crisisintervention training one of its top priorities for the coming year.
Levinesaid he plans to approach Sheriff Russ Burger with a plan to offertraining to all law enforcement agencies in the county, not justEugene. Various agencies dealing with mental health issues have offeredto help.
“I am optimistic and I think it will be within this nextyear,” Levine said. “This is an opportunity that our community shouldnot miss out on. We need to seize the momentum.”
From thebeginning, the Salisbury family has said they want Ryan’s death toresult in saved lives. Over the past year, they have attended meetingsand participated in discussions about how to prevent similar deaths inthe future.
Jeff Salisbury said he and his wife are heartened bythe progress made in the past year to improve the way police treat thementally ill. He said the addition of Tasers and the potential adoptionof crisis intervention training could prevent another outcome like theone started when his wife called 911 to ask police for help.
“Properlytrained and armed, the officers could have worked to calm the situationdown, instead of shouting at the top of their lungs, ‘Drop theweapon!’ ” he said. “If that had not worked, they could have subduedRyan with a Taser stun. Either way he could have been taken to thehospital where needed treatment would have been provided.”
HughMassengill, a former mental health client and member of the city’sHuman Rights Commission, is skeptical about whether Tasers are theanswer. During a temporary stint on the police commission, his was thelone vote against Tasers. He called them “cattle prods for the poor.”
“Ifthey were only to be used in place of a pistol or rifle, I would behard pressed to oppose them, but in truth, they will almost always beused on poor people who are not armed and are not suicidal,” he said,citing cases of Taser abuse in Texas.
“I am in the minority in feeling that the one thing that we have done, Tasers, may be a mistake.”
Insteadof adding weapons, the community ought to focus on educating youngpeople about how to get help, teaching parents to relate to theirchildren and encouraging discussion during the intense emotional stormsthat teens often experience.
“We need to get rid of the stigma ofbeing in mental health crisis, and we definitely need to find a way toget more funding for one-to-one, face-to-face counseling,” he said.
DavidOaks, director of Eugene-based Mind Freedom International, whichadvocates for the rights of mental health consumers, said the shootinghad one immediate effect: It got people talking.
Groups thatpreviously had been working in isolation are now communicating and insome cases joining forces to better serve their constituents, he said.
Archbaldof the mental illness alliance agreed that public awareness hasincreased over the past year, and that that fact alone could causeofficers to use greater caution in the future. But she said the lack ofurgency among officials is frustrating.
“The intense effort totry to make things better seems to have fallen on volunteers, not thepeople who are paid with our tax dollars to do this kind of work,” shesaid. “But I think the tipping point has come. It has come because ofpublic pressure. I think there are ways to get this going and I trulyam hopeful that that can happen.”