Seeking better interactions with the mentally ill

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department hopes to launch a pilot program this summer to help police agencies better deal with people with mental illness, Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said Tuesday.

She said the federal government is committed to addressing a “mental health crisis” that continues to strain the criminal justice system and leave ill-equipped police departments, courts and jails unable to keep up with the demand for services from mentally ill Americans.

“Requiring our strained criminal justice system to do double duty as front-line mental health facilities is not only inefficient, it is totally inconsistent with our values and who we are as a country,” Yates said in prepared remarks for a Washington summit on mental illness. “This is not the treatment our fellow citizens deserve.”

The intersection of the mental health and criminal justice systems is attracting growing attention, with concerns about the adequacy of services and treatment flaring
after episodes of mass violence carried out by troubled individuals with mental-illness histories.

The Justice Department is working to address the problems by encouraging better police interactions with people struggling with mental illness, as well as mental-health treatment for suspects both inside and outside prison. The department is also promoting the use of specialized mental-health courts and diverting some suspects to treatment instead of jail, plus improved treatment for those who wind up behind bars.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance, the department’s grant-giving arm, has awarded more than $80 million in grants since 2004 to support mental health and substance abuse treatment. It’s now developing a curriculum for police forces to create and train specialized crisis intervention teams which will be responsible for de-escalating dangerous situations. Yates cited the example of one such team in Portland, Oregon, where an officer managed to talk a knife-wielding man off a parking garage ledge after determining he was hungry and providing him with a sandwich.

The goal is to create different training modules with a range of best practices, and to launch a pilot program in certain localities this summer, she said.