It's all for the best

Editorial Notebook

December 04, 2004|By Ann LoLordo

THE VOICES in Denise Wilkes' head pattered on, seven strains echoing in her ear: You think you're funny. Ha! Don't touch anything. Keep your hand in your pockets and get in the house. Get under the bed.

After five minutes, the Baltimore police officer couldn't focus on the simplest task: writing her name, filling out a form, holding a conversation. Incessant, nonsensical, the voices turned vindictive, spewing profanities, urging her ... to kill.

"It was really wild," she recalls now.

But, in that hour, as the recording resounded in her ear, Officer Wilkes got a sense of what it might be like to suffer from a psychotic disorder. She came to realize how a man sitting quietly in the living room might suddenly lunge at her - for no apparent reason. She began to understand how a homeless woman ranting on a downtown corner might ignore her calls to calm down. And it's that recognition, that sense of the other, which will serve her well the next time she encounters a mentally ill person on her beat.

It's knowledge that will save lives.

She received specialized training that, after years of debate and discussion, is finally under way in Baltimore in four police districts. In years past, police have killed and been killed in incidents that graphically illustrated how ill-equipped officers were in dealing with potential suicides, delusional individuals and the mentally ill who had refused to take their medication. And while city police received some basic training, the new program taught by mental health specialists, advocates and police officials is a weeklong seminar. It teaches participants about the telltale signs of mental illness, engages them in role-playing and provides methods of dealing with people in crisis - ideally, to divert them into the mental health system, rather than subjecting them to arrest.

There's no question that the potential for misunderstanding and confrontation is there. Consider this: About 10 percent to 16 percent of arrestees at Baltimore's pretrial detention center suffer from a mental illness. A third of the homeless are similarly afflicted.

So far this year, 95 police officers, sheriff's deputies and Downtown Partnership security guards have participated in the initiative, known by the acronym BEST (Behavioral Emergency Services Team). The training, modeled after a successful program in Memphis, Tenn., and financed with a state grant, appears to be paying off - police report no deadly shootings involving the mentally ill this year. In 2003, three police officers shot and killed a despondent Canton woman after she lunged at them with a knife. The case of Gloria Hopkins followed other well-publicized shootings in which a police lieutenant was killed by an angry man who had been off his medication and a Homeland woman with a history of mental illness died in a confrontation with police. In both cases, police tried to deal with the individuals on their own.

The BEST training encourages officers to call a community-based mental health program for advice when necessary. And they are: Officials with Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. say calls from police average about a dozen a month, instead of 12 a year as had been the case. That means the mentally ill who need help are getting help on the scene and being referred to services, rather than spending the night in jail or worse.

The hoped-for benefits for police are: less time spent in hospital emergency rooms, fewer violent confrontations, less use of deadly force. Police who undergo this much-needed training will know not to strong-arm a paranoid schizophrenic or try to reason with one - reactions that can exacerbate a situation.

For Officer Wilkes, the training gave her insights into the troubled minds of people she has encountered during her 19 years on the force. It gave her a greater respect for the transforming power of these illnesses. It taught her that schizophrenics - such as the instructor in her class - "can be just like you and me" if they take their medicine.

But more to the point, it helped her on a recent call involving an irate man whose family had said he would never go willingly to the hospital. She spent 45 minutes talking to him, persuaded him to take his medicine and then escorted him to the hospital. Denise Wilkes had learned a valuable lesson - that neither the man nor the situation she had found herself in was hopeless.

And that's a hopeful sign.

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