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Police struggle with approach to the mentally ill

Recent killings have led to calls for better tracking and treatment of the mentally ill and more training for officers.

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About 225 out of 1,000 Memphis police officers have undergone 40 hours of training. When these officers arrive on a scene involving a mentally ill individual, they are in charge, regardless of rank.

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That model has been adopted in Houston and Portland, Ore., and is lauded by many advocates.

"It's not that with the Memphis model there will never again be another tragedy," Rogers says. "But there will be fewer tragedies."

Not everyone agrees that the Memphis model is the best way.

Fyfe of the New York Police Department says it wouldn't be appropriate in his city, where the police have 150,000 dealings with the mentally ill a year, compared to about18,000 in Memphis.

The vast majority of situations that end violently begin to go awry in the first 30 or 40 seconds after police arrive, he says. Rather than train a special squad, "it is much more important to raise the level of expertise of first responders," Fyfe says.

So, two years ago, the NYPD added two chapters on dealing with the mentally ill to the textbook for new recruits and added extensive role-playing exercises to its training.

And Fyfe says the department does a pretty good job.

"In 2002, we shot four EDPs of 150,000 calls," he says.

In two of those cases, the person shot had first stabbed an officer, he said. "Find me a profession with better professional performance," he says.

It's not good enough for Loretta Cerbelli. Cerbelli, whose son Kevin was killed in 1998, has sued the NYPD for $90 million and policy changes, including revising guidelines that recommend encircling the target in a "zone of safety."

Kevin Cerbelli had been treated for schizophrenia for years. In October 1998, he entered a police station, carrying a knife, a screwdriver, and a rosary, and allegedly used the screwdriver to stab an officer who held open the door for him.

Officers then surrounded Cerbelli and told him to drop the weapons. They tried to subdue him with a nonlethal Taser gun, which sends a jolt of electricity and is supposed to temporarily immobilize suspects, but it didn't seem to affect Cerbelli.

So they shot him.

"It's totally unacceptable that this could have happened in a police station," Ms. Cerbelli says. "My son should be alive today."

That's how Sue Nickerson feels, too. But she knows just how dangerous an erratic, mentally ill person can be to police officers.

In February 2001, her son and another officer answered a complaint that Frank Zito, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenic and bipolar disorders, was playing music too loudly.

When he would not turn down the music or let the officers into his trailer, they tried to force their way in. Then Zito allegedly shot and killed them.

He has since been convicted and executed for the murders.

But Zito should have been living in a mental health facility or at least made to take his medication, Nickerson says.

She would like to see better coordination between police and mental-health agencies to ensure that people who are dangerous are off the streets.

And she is frustrated that the privacy rights of the mentally ill often get in the way of such coordination.

"Frank Zito pulled the trigger that killed my son," she says. "But perhaps the system helped him load it."