Police mental crisis training misses mark
Few changes after $1.2M investment
The plan was announced a week before Christmas 2014 and felt like a gift to a city that had been roiling for months.
At last, Milwaukee would adopt a better way for police to handle people in the midst of a mental health crisis. No one wanted another Dontre Hamilton tragedy.
Hamilton, 31, a roofer with a history of suicide attempts and schizophrenia, was sleeping in Red Arrow Park downtown at lunchtime on April 30, 2014. A clerk at the nearby Starbucks called police to complain that Hamilton was scaring customers.
Reporting for this piece was done by Dan Rabb, Aisha Abdool Karim, Mustafa Zafar Mirza and Amanda Rosengarten of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism under the supervision of Meg Kissinger, a Journal Sentinel reporter who was a visiting professor at Columbia from 2016 to 2018.
Police reports show that two officers arrived, questioned Hamilton and told the clerk he was doing nothing wrong. They did the same when she called again. Later, Officer Christopher Manney picked up a message from his cell phone and, unaware the other officers had been at the park, went there himself.
Manney came from behind Hamilton
and yanked him up, placing his hands under Hamilton’s arms and on his chest. A startled Hamilton grabbed Manney’s baton and the two began to scuffle. The officer pulled out his service revolver and shot Hamilton 14 times. He died at the scene.
Police reports identified Hamilton as homeless, but he had been living in a group home for people with mental illness and was under the supervision of a social worker. Confused about the voices in his head, he was too scared to stay at the facility, so he walked downtown that day and wandered around before falling asleep in the park.
Mayor Tom Barrett heard the shots from his City Hall office and ran to the window.
“I can remember right where I was sitting when this happened,” Barrett said.
Hamilton’s death sparked months of outrage in Milwaukee. When word came that Manney would not be prosecuted, protesters marched up highway entrances and surrounded City Hall.
Eight months after the shooting, Barrett met privately with the Hamilton family and their lawyer and vowed that the city would use the tragedy as a catalyst for change. Moments later, they stood somber-faced before a bank of TV cameras.
Barrett pledged that Milwaukee would require all police officers to receive 40 hours of instruction in a program known as Crisis Intervention Team training. The project would take three years and cost $1.2 million, of which $500,000 would come from a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The Hamilton family had pushed for the training.
Tears ran down Nate Hamilton’s face at the idea that some good might come from the death of his younger brother. No one seems to care about people like Dontre, Nate told the reporters. Maybe this will help.
Their plan did not work out the way he had hoped.
A Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism investigation found that Milwaukee and other cities have ignored warnings from the developers of CIT that they should not require all officers to take the training.
That sort of approach, the founders say, only worsens tension between police and those they are meant to protect.
Crisis Intervention Team a ‘specialist model’
Of all the mental health training programs for police, CIT is held up as the gold standard. The course was developed in Memphis 30 years ago after police shot and killed a man with a knife who was threatening suicide. The case sparked demands that police be better trained on how to approach people who are mentally ill and may be dangerous.
Sam Cochran, then a lieutenant in the Memphis department, helped to design the program as a “specialist model,” much like a SWAT team or gang squad.
The idea is to make it a point of pride and prestige to be on the team.
The program has three basic principles:
❚ All officers participate voluntarily. ❚ They receive continuous training on how to deal with people in crisis.
❚ And officers are expected to build relationships with people in the community who have mental illness.
The idea is that when dispatchers get calls about people in crisis, they can send the officers who know them best.
About half of the officers who volunteer for the special-team training nationwide have a family member or friend with mental illness.
When officers know the people in the community and what their issues are, any such confrontations are less likely to end badly, Cochran said.
“CIT is a lot more than just training,” Cochran said. “It’s a whole different way of policing. You have to want to do it to make it work.”
But, in recent years, as deadly encounters with police have attracted more attention —particularly on social media — cities such as Milwaukee are requiring all officers to complete the training.
As a result, police departments are spending millions of dollars in training that runs counter to the way the program was designed, the Columbia University examination found. Research shows that forcing the program on unwilling officers has made some more resentful and potentially more prone to violence against people with mental illness.
CIT training has doubled in the past five years. Today, nearly one-third of all police departments have some form of the training.
The rush to expand the program in the wake of high-profile tragedies may stave off lawsuits and garner favorable media attention, but it can undo years of building strong relationships, the founders say.
Yet, their warnings go unheeded. Minneapolis is considering CIT for all its officers. New York City is in the midst of training all of its 36,000 officers.
2004 incident sparked need for training
Milwaukee was actually one of the first cities to embrace the classic Memphis model after the 2004 death of Michael Blucher, a baby-faced 18-year-old with a history of hallucinations and delusions.
Officer Tommy Wilson, a three-year-veteran, was working alone that night and had no training for how to deal with someone in a psychiatric crisis. He was sent to investigate a report about a man who had hit a girl on the head with an ornamental Samurai sword.
The girl’s parents had arrived home from a nearby bar to find their daughter on the front lawn, bleeding and Blucher in the kitchen. The father had a gun and fired a shot at the wall. The mother had a knife and had slashed Blucher in the arm.
Wilson found Blucher in the front of the house, holding two knives, and screaming that he wanted the officer to shoot him.
Wilson tried to stall as he waited for back-up, ordering Blucher to go back into the kitchen where the girl’s parents were. Blucher refused, and started coming toward Wilson with the knives, begging the officer to kill him. Wilson shot Blucher three times in the chest, killing him instantly.
The officer was so distraught that he had to be carried from the scene.
Police officers themselves began to demand better training.
Sandy Pasch, a psychiatric nurse, brought Cochran to town to talk about his program and helped organize the first classes.
“We had to do something,” she said. “A death like this was just heartbreaking.”
In Wisconsin, it is especially important for police to know how to deal with people in a psychiatric crisis because of how often police are called to deal with a person who is threatening harm. State law that requires police — not a doctor or family member — to begin an emergency hospitalization of people who may be dangerous to themselves or others.
Mary Neubauer, co-chair of Milwaukee’s Mental Health Task Force and a member of the county’s Mental Health Board, was a great fan of the new training and one of its first trainers. She helped officers understand what it felt and looked like to have hallucinations and delusions. Officers wore special goggles and headphones to help them experience what a psychotic break felt like.
“It was cool to see officers get Neubauer said.
Nan Hegerty, then police chief, was enthusiastic about a greater collaboration between mental health workers and police. She welcomed the prospect of pairing police with psychologists to try and cut down on the number of people brought in on emergency detentions. These detentions were not only traumatic for the person in crisis, they were expensive and often ineffective.
But by 2008, Hegerty had retired and the new chief, Ed Flynn, bristled at the notion that his officers had to make up for the lack of adequate psychiatric services.
Flynn later sent a team to Houston to study that department’s first-in-thenation mental health division, created in 2013.
Houston’s department has five programs aimed at helping people in psychiatric crisis avoid arrest — including a
it,” homeless outreach team, a team dedicated to identifying “chronic consumers” of police time and a team of 10 officers who are paired with mental health counselors to go out on calls for help.
When the Milwaukee team requested that the department put some of those same measures in place, Flynn never took action.
Officers resent ‘Hug-a-Thug’ program
Meanwhile, some officers took to calling the existing program “Hug-a-Thug” and griped that it was not their jobs to be “street psychiatrists,” Pasch said.
The growing resentment began to take a toll on the training with fewer classes offered.
“A lot of the momentum was lost,” Pasch said.
In the days after Hamilton was killed, Flynn tried to deflect any criticism that police need to be better prepared to deal with the growing number of people with mental illness who are not properly treated.
“We can’t be all things to all people,” he said.
Not all officers know or want to deal with someone in a mental health crisis.
“Many officers are not ready or interested or do not have the disposition,” the board of the international CIT program warns in a position paper posted in January on the organization’s website.
“For these officers, valuable training time and resources may not only be wasted on them if they are mandated to sit through the 40-hour course, but their attitudes can disrupt the class,” the experts warn. “Even worse, an agency may send an officer who is not interested or does not have the right disposition.”
Cochran and the other board members say they support all officers receiving training in more general matters, such as mental health awareness and de-escalation. They say mental health first-aid, which provides training on the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to best approach people in crisis, is a better choice for all officers than CIT.
The cities that have stuck with the original model have seen success.
In Memphis, where CIT was founded, just 15% of the officers are CIT-trained. Officials there have reported a steady reduction in the number of people with mental illness injured by police. They’ve also seen a drop in arrests of people with mental illness.
Cochran and the other program leaders worry that politicians are using the name of CIT to make it look like they are taking the issue seriously without being willing to do the long-term work that it takes to make the program successful.
“Everybody wants to feel comfortable that new training is being introduced with the expectation that we’re all going to live happily ever after,” said Cochran. “It’s a quick fix — the other things that have to take place are a little more challenging.”
Sociologist warns the mayor
Amy Watson, a University of Illinois sociologist, said she winced when she saw the news of Barrett’s pledge to train all Milwaukee officers. In early January 2015, she dashed off an email to the mayor warning him that he was going about this all wrong.
Watson, who has studied CIT for 20 years and serves as a member of the international organization’s board, cautioned the mayor that his plan could be “disastrous.”
That’s what happened in Portland, Ore. Many officers there considered a CIT assignment a burden, and officers tapped for duty looked at their role as nothing more than transporting people in crisis to the hospital, Watson said. Tensions between resentful officers and people with mental illness flared. Nine people with mental illness were killed in six years.
The 2006 death of James Chasse Jr., 42, was particularly gruesome.
Chasse, who suffered from delusions, was beaten by officers, sustaining over 20 broken bones, a punctured lung and a torn spleen. After police initially denied him medical attention, he was put in the back of a police cruiser where he died on the way to the hospital.
“In a good faith effort to address this, they decided to train all of their officers,” Watson wrote to Barrett. “It did not go well.”
In the following four years, the Portland Police Bureau used deadly force against people with mental illness 14 more times.
In one instance, officers repeatedly tased a naked man in his own apartment for not complying with commands and reportedly running at the officers. It turned out he was not attacking them — nor was he mentally ill. He was in diabetic shock, and coming to the officers for help.
Portland’s rising death toll caught the attention of the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice, and in July 2011 the agency opened an investigation into Portland police.
Investigators concluded later that year that the decision to give all new officers CIT training had backfired. Rather than building empathy towards those with mental illnesses, it seemed to foster a culture of widespread animosity and resentment throughout the department.
Police regularly referred to people with mental illness as “mentals” in official meetings. One officer told investigators that his job was “to put people in jail, not to provide social services.”
The investigation led to a 2012 settlement between the Department of Justice and the city of Portland. Reforms mandated by the agreement were wide ranging: stricter policies on when to use force and better coordination with mental health organizations.
Perhaps the most significant recommendation was that the department go back to a “Memphis Model” CIT program.
Eventually, Portland dropped plans to train all officers.
In her 2015 email, Watson told Barrett she agreed with him that all officers need some mental health training.
But the force should keep its 10-year commitment to the classic CIT model, she wrote. There still needs to be a specialty unit that other officers and dispatchers know to call when these kinds of crises arise.
Barrett never replied. Training for all officers started the next month.
In a recent interview, Barrett said he does not remember Watson’s email. He says he understands why researchers and policy makers might not think training all officers was the right thing to do — or the most fiscally sound.
But when Dontre Hamilton’s mother, Maria Hamilton, asked for the training, Barrett said he felt he could not say no.
“It’s difficult for me to say to the mother of a young man who’s been killed, ‘Well, we’re not going to train all of our officers,’” Barrett said.
Effort to fend off lawsuits
Legal experts say more cities are moving to train all officers in CIT to fend off lawsuits.
The most common argument in such cases is failure to train, said John Rappaport, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and an expert on how liability concerns drive police reform.
Cochran, the program founder, agrees.
“If you don’t have a training program in place, trust me, that’s the first thing the lawyers look at,” Cochran said. “Does it meet some kind of national trend or national standard?”
Cities and counties use CIT to push back and say they did their part, he said.
Social media clips of arrests that go awry add to the pressure for training.
Milwaukee officials are investigating the violent arrest last month of a man with mental illness that landed him and four officers in the hospital. Police repeatedly kicked the man in the head as he fought arrest. A video of the confrontation went viral within hours.
Adam Trammell, 22, of neighboring West Milwaukee, died last year after being tased as many as 18 times by police after they beat down his apartment door and found him in his shower drinking a jug of water.
It’s impossible to say precisely how many people with mental illness are shot and killed by police each year. The federal government does not track fatal police shootings of any kind. The Bureau of Justice Statistics launched plans to develop such a database but
suspended the project indefinitely last fall.
Several privately-compiled databases put the number of people killed by police nationwide at roughly 1,000 each year. Mental health advocates estimate that as many as half of those killed had serious mental illness.
Trainer sees officers sleeping, playing on phones
Neubauer, the longtime Milwaukee trainer, said she could see the difference in officer attitudes from the day the course was made mandatory.
Instead of paying attention, some officers were sleeping. Others passed the time playing games on their phones. A few told her they didn’t want to be there, she said.
“The quality of the training went right out the window,” Neubauer said. Pasch fared no better.
For the first time in 10 years of training, she felt hostility from officers, some who she said acted as if they were being punished.
After Pasch protested that the officers should not be forced to take the training, the officer in charge of the program told her not to come back.
She went home that night and told her husband, “I just got fired from my volunteer job.”
Brenda Wesley, then director of education and outreach for the Milwaukee chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, got so upset with the disrespect she felt from some officers that she quit. Ultimately, the mental health advocacy group volunteers were eliminated from the training altogether. The CIT program is now handled internally by police.
Key police personnel leave program
Four years after Dontre Hamilton’s death, key police personnel who had spent years working with Milwaukee’s mental health community are gone.
Liam Looney, who coordinated the program, is no longer a part of it. Neither is Chad Stiles, the officer who helped develop the department program that pairs police with psychologists. Lt. Cassandra Libal, who now coordinates the department’s mental health training, would not comment on why they were transferred; Looney and Stiles could not be reached for comment.
Carianne Yerkes, the assistant chief who oversaw the department’s mental health programs, retired in July. She declined a request for comment.
Other measures promised to ease tension between police and people in crisis have yet to be fulfilled. The department scuttled plans to expand a program to add more police/psychologist teams. A pilot program that would have allowed trained social workers to bring people to the hospital on an emergency detention has been sidelined.
“All those years of building relationships, gone,” Wesley said.
Libal, the Milwaukee lieutenant, says she considers the training a success.
“No one’s ever been hurt from knowledge,” she said.
The old CIT model could be restored in time, Libal said. The department plans to offer advanced training for interested officers in the fall. But no funds have been earmarked nor have classes been scheduled.
The Hamilton family sued the city for wrongful death and settled in May 2017 for $2.3 million.
It is unclear why specially-trained officers were not sent to deal with Dontre Hamilton after the 911 calls on that April day in Red Arrow Park. Manney was fired from the force for not following protocol for conducting a pat-down search and for not properly dealing with a person who may be mentally disturbed.
Nate Hamilton is not so optimistic that things have improved since his brother’s death.
“We asked for this training because we thought it would help make wiser, safer cops, but nothing changed,” he said. “We don’t have any less aggressive officers than the day Dontre was killed.”
Hamilton also said he would like to work with mental health groups to rebuild the relationships with the police that have been lost since the training began.
Martina Gollin-Graves, president of Mental Health America, said she would be eager to help with that.
“It’s a shame how the years of building trust have been thwarted by this,” she said. “We are standing here with our hands reaching out.”
Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton, wipes a tear away after her son, Nate Hamilton (left), family and supporters of Dontre Hamilton spoke outside the federal courthouse on E. Wisconsin Ave. about the decision not to charge Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney in the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton at Red Arrow Park in April of 2014.