Police seek expanded help from mental health units

Officers call in professionals to assist with troubled suspects

May 17, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

This week's police shooting of a scissors-wielding teenager in Pasadena has put a new focus on Anne Arundel County's interest in beefing up the use of mobile mental health teams.

Just two weeks before the death of Justin James Fisher, 18, of Glen Burnie, the Police Department presented its budget for next year, including $230,000 to double the number of "mobile crisis units" from three to six.

The mental health professionals, who assist officers in situations such as domestic disputes and standoffs with suicidal people, form the backbone of one of the most advanced mental health support systems in the country, said Frank Sullivan, executive director of the county's Mental Health Agency.

"I don't think there's any question about it," he said. "We are way ahead. Is it enough? No."

None of the units was on duty in the predawn hours Sunday, when four officers ended a 35-minute confrontation by shooting Fisher five times. Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said at a news conference Monday that Fisher had a history of "psychotic episodes." Police are investigating whether mental health workers were asked to respond.

The county's units, each made up of two people, are on duty from the early afternoon until 2:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. other days. The teams are on call at other times.

In April, the mobile crisis units responded to 115 police calls and 143 calls through a county telephone hot line. From July 1, 2005, through April 30, crisis units responded to 3,172 police and hot line calls.

The units are funded primarily through $1.1 million in annual state and federal funding, Sullivan said.

There's room to grow, as the headquarters for the crisis units was moved this year from Glen Burnie to the closed Crownsville Hospital Center.

County Executive Janet S. Owens said in a phone interview Monday that as the county's population increases, there's a greater need for providing officers a resource when they encounter the mentally ill.

"Our police officers are trained in negotiations, but some of these situations are becoming so involved," Owens said. "They are psychiatric situations, the kind that [should involve] professional, clinical intervention."

The service has the support of several County Council members, who must approve the $1.37 billion budget by the end of the month.

"We will protect that money," said Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican. "It's an important piece of what they do to protect our citizens."

The members of a mental health team seek to "stabilize" a tense situation and can offer referrals for counseling, Sullivan said. The idea, he said, is to "really try to keep people out of the justice system."

In potentially violent encounters, such as the one with Fisher, a mental health team would play a more passive role, recommending to police how they should deal with a person, he said.

"There's a safety barrier," Sullivan said. "As long as it's a public safety issue, the police are in charge."

Police pulled over Fisher in Riviera Beach after his mother called 911 at 4:24 a.m. Sunday to report that he had threatened himself and his girlfriend. Once he was stopped, Fisher got out of the Honda Accord he was driving and threatened police with a 9-inch pair of scissors.

According to a witness, John Stewart, Fisher told police that he wanted to wish his mother "a happy Mother's Day" and to tell his brother goodbye. At another point, the witness said, Fisher got into "a middle linebacker stance" and put the scissors to his neck.

Four officers shot him after he charged at police, officials said.

Several criminologists said mental health professionals should be been called in to help police peacefully end the dispute. Shanahan called Fisher's death "tragic."

Sullivan said he wished that one of his teams could have been with police to calm Fisher.

"You really want these people to get help," Sullivan said. "And this person didn't get help. Why? I have no idea."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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