Akron arrest renews questions on police response to mental health crises
Two Akron police officers responded to a call in East Akron on a chilly April day. They were there for a wellness check.
"We have a 34-year-old male suicidal," one officer told dispatch after assessing the situation.
The officers decided the man needed to be pink slipped, the process of hospitalizing a person who is experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Alright man, well we’re going to have to send you down to the hospital by private ambulance, OK?," a paramedic told him.
"Bro no, I’m not going nowhere sir," he responded.
"I don’t have any control over that. You’ll have to talk to them," the paramedic replied, gesturing to the two officers.
"I’m not going nowhere; you guys have a good day," the man said, as he turned to leave the room.
Body cam footage shows one of the officers reaching out to touch his shoulder and the man pushing him off. Immediately, both officers were on top of the man, an amputee with only one leg, in an altercation that included several closed fist blows to the man’s head. The officers eventually got the man in handcuffs and charged him with assault and resisting arrest, among other charges.
This isn’t how mental health calls usually go in Summit County, according to Dr. Doug Smith. He’s the medical director of the County of Summit Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services Board. He’s also Summit County’s Crisis Intervention Team program coordinator. CIT training teaches police officers and other first responders how to respond to mental health calls.
“They’re not using force; they’re using their voice," Smith explained. "Even though in some of these cases weapons are involved. Even when weapons are involved, they’re not going hands on most of the time. They’re not using force to try to solve the situation.”
In fact, use of force incidents when officers are trained in CIT drops to almost zero, Smith said.
“No one’s going to be strapped down," Smith said. "No one’s going to need to be handcuffed. No one’s going to be stuck in an ambulance or a cruiser.”
About 70% of officers in Summit County are trained in CIT, more than anywhere else in Ohio, according to Smith, but the two officers who responded to that April mental health call in Akron weren’t. '
The Akron Police Department’s emergency mental illness procedure states that a CIT officer will be sent to mental health call if available. Fifty-four percent of Akron police officers have completed the 40-hour CIT course.
The Akron Police Department declined to speak about CIT and said the April mental health call is under an internal investigation, which is standard for all use of force incidents. Even then, there could be good reason why an officer may have to use force in a mental health crisis, Smith said.
“Well if they leave him in place, he may die by suicide," Smith said.
Ideally, this force should be minimal, he added.
"If need be, hopefully safely, they may have to require him to go with them," Smith said, "and they may use force, ideally it may mean minor force and maybe a pair of handcuffs to make sure he goes."
A key component of CIT training is that it's not mandatory. Officers should sign up for the training, because they want to, not because they're told to. Josh Bartholomew often asks his classes if they volunteered to come to the training or if they were "volun-told." Bartholomew is a patrol officer with the Streetsboro Police Department and Portage County's CIT coordinator. Even bad attitudes change pretty quickly when officers begin to engage with the training, he said.
"It's fun to see the attitudes change through the week, because they do become more involved and engaged," Bartholomew said. "And they ask good questions, and you can tell they're really taking something in. And it's a good thing."
CIT training is just as effective in Portage County as it is in Summit, and the majority of officers in the county are also trained in CIT, Bartholomew said.
"The vast majority of all the interactions is de-escalation," Bartholomew said. "We talk to people and get them to voluntarily do what we need them to do."
A big challenge facing CIT is letting the community know how well it works.
Leslie Powlette Stoyer is often educating families on mental health resources as the executive director of Summit County’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many people don’t trust the police and don’t want to get them involved in mental health crises, but this feeling often changes when she explains CIT to them, she said.
“They come away with a little bit better feeling about if they have to call and what that is going to look like," Stoyer said.
She hears great feedback on how law enforcement in Summit County responds to mental health calls.
“More often than not I hear, ‘The police were great. They responded great,'" Stoyer said.
But it’s going to take time to bridge the work CIT officers do with how the public perceives the police, Stoyer said.
“It’s going to take some trust. It’s going to take people coming together to voice their concerns," Stoyer said. "I think all of those things are starting to happen.”
Change to how police respond to mental health crises is coming to Akron, as the city is getting a new mayor and police chief next year. The presumptive next mayor Shammas Malik ran on a platform of public safety and has called for a different model: one where mental health professionals and social workers respond to nonviolent calls with officers.
"Maybe an officer responds at the very beginning of that call but then can leave instead of being tied up for the next hour or two on that call," Malik said during his campaign last September.
Summit County is already on the path to involving more mental health professionals and less police in these calls. The county is launching a mobile team to respond to mental health crises later this year, Dr. Doug Smith with the Summit County ADM Board said.
“The hope is that we are going to add in this alternative response that will allow the police to focus on crises where they’re really needed," Smith said.
Even with more resources, Smith thinks there’s still a role for CIT officers to play in responding to mental health calls.
“I’m not sure we’re ever going to get away from CIT," Smith said, "and I’m obviously a big fan of CIT, I’m not sure I want to.”
The skills officers learn from CIT training are invaluable lessons in building empathy and knowledge about the mental health resources in the county to better serve everyone, he said. And CIT training has proven to keep both officers and citizens safe, Portage County CIT coordinator Josh Bartholomew said.
"You can have a situation that starts off calm and can blow up on you, and you can start with a situation that's very volatile and can calm down," Bartholomew said. "I don't think you're ever going to truly remove law enforcement."
As Summit County integrates more mental health professionals into mental health calls, police officers will continue to respond to people in crisis, CIT trained or not.