When a Long Island man’s elderly parents dialed 911 for help in subduing their son, police found him screaming in a language only he seemed to comprehend, Newsday reports. Officers from the Southampton Village Police Department had responded to calls about the man 40 times over the past five years. In the final call, on Feb. 4, shortly after police arrived, a scuffle ensued, and the man, 35, who had been institutionalized twice before, lay dying.
As authorities await autopsy results to determine the cause of death, mental health experts and law enforcement officials say the case illustrates one of the most difficult tasks facing officers: How best to handle the increasing number of emergency calls involving the mentally ill. “This is the most difficult call police get because many officers don’t have a lot of mental health background,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer now a police training instructor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “They bring firearms into this. Their speciality and training is using force. In an ideal world, police would be the last people to deal with the mentally ill. But the reality is, there’s no one else.”
Law enforcement officials on Long Island report increasing incidents of calls involving mentally ill people. In Nassau, the number has risen more than 8 percent, to 2,558 last year from 2,364 in 2000.; Suffolk police say the number of emotionally disturbed people officers took to hospitals have steadily risen.
Tragedies involving the mentally ill have led many police departments to rethink how they deal with such cases. Memphis revamped its training after police officers responding to a 911 call shot to death a mentally ill man in 1987. Memphis created around-the-clock specialized crisis intervention teams and required officers assigned to them to spend 40 hours training with experts. The training includes learning how to talk to mentally disturbed people during standoffs, and studying the effects of various medications. This 15-year-old model has been copied in more than 50 agencies nationwide.
Mental health officials on Long Island say there is not enough money to pay medical professionals to respond to all mental health crises, leaving police as the default frontline in emergency mental health care.