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.

Loretta Cerbelli lost her son Kevin six years ago when the delusional 30-year-old walked into a police station in New York's borough of Queens and stabbed an officer without provocation. Less than two minutes later, other officers shot him to death.

Sue Nickerson lost her son three years ago. A police officer in Centreville, Md., Michael Nickerson answered a call about a noise disturbance in a trailer park and was shot and killed by a mentally ill man.

It seems unlikely that the mother of a slain officer - whose surviving son is also a police officer - and the mother of a man killed at the hands of police would see eye to eye.

But in different states and by different means, Loretta Cerbelli and Sue Nickerson are fighting for a common cause: Both want better tracking and treatment of the mentally ill and more training for police officers who deal with them. "Police officers should be on alert when they get a call" concerning someone who is mentally ill, says Ms. Nickerson, head of the Maryland chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors. "Then maybe they could defuse the situation."

In Philadelphia last month, Julio Morais clashed with officers who were called to his apartment to help commit him to a mental hospital. Mr. Morais stabbed an officer and was subsequently shot in the head. It was the third time in six months that a mentally ill person was killed by Philadelphia police. Just before Christmas last year, officers shot and killed a woman who had been running naked down a street and who had come at them with a knife.

These deaths might have been avoided if police had been better trained, says Susan Rogers, director of special projects for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

"Police officers don't want to kill the mentally ill," Ms. Rogers says. "They are responding out of fear."

Although the Philadelphia Police Department did not return calls for this story, officers have said that the killings appear to have been justified.

Such shootings occur around the country with a frequency that alarms advocates of the mentally ill.

In part, it's because more mentally ill people are on the streets than ever before - 500,000 more today than there were in the 1960s, when it was easier to commit them to institutions, says James Fyfe, deputy commissioner for training with the New York Police Department. Mr. Fyfe says NYPD dispatchers take a call from an emotionally disturbed person, or an EDP in police lingo, every 7.3 minutes.

People on both sides agree these individuals can be as dangerous to the public and police officers as rational criminals. But advocates say different police tactics could greatly reduce the likelihood of violence.

Much of what police officers are trained to do in dealing with rational criminals is dangerously wrong when it comes to the mentally ill, said Ron Honberg, legal director of the National Association for the

mentally ill.

"Closing in on someone, sending out a SWAT team - these are prescriptions for disaster," he says. When officers "learn to keep their distance and talk soothingly, it significantly cuts down the chance of escalation."

Many in law enforcement agree.

Some large cities have trained officers to deal with the mentally ill and work in collaboration with mental health agencies, a model that was pioneered in Memphis, Tenn.

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.

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."

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