The worst thing about the Newtown school massacre, Norman Williams said, is knowing that something like it will happen again.
As Wichita’s police chief he’s already decided what to do.
He’s determined to train more officers in how to deal with mentally ill people to defuse potentially violent encounters. He wants to increase the amount of contact his officers have with mentally ill people, including those who are homeless.
What he doesn’t plan to do is recommend additional gun laws.
Across America, national experts like author and psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, and police chiefs like Williams, are sharpening proposals for safety every time another mass killing occurs. Unfortunately, Torrey said, they occur frequently now.
After Newtown, President Obama said he might push for gun restrictions. Leaders of the National Rifle Association said tougher laws aimed at the mentally ill were the answer.
Williams said both ideas disappointed him.
Most criminals his officers arrest buy guns on the street – or steal them. The types of handguns are getting more dangerous each year.
“We encountered .22 calibers and .38s when I started in the 1970s, and now it’s .45s, 9 millimeters and .40 calibers, all semi-automatic,” he said. “Gun laws won’t stop that.”
Williams and mental health professionals also said mentally ill people are not to blame for most homicides. The mentally ill, they said, commit about 10 percent of U.S. homicides. They also are about 11 times more likely to be victims themselves.
But they said we have neglected them for decades, shutting doors to programs.
They said we neglect them now to our own shame – and at our own peril.
“I was devastated, totally shocked, dismayed and disheartened by what happened in Newtown,” Williams said. “Those children expect adults to protect them. Instead, an adult took their lives.”
Instead of blaming people, though, we must help people, he said.
Williams has become so concerned about helping the mentally ill in Wichita and protecting the public from the mentally ill who are dangerous that he’s asked his staff to educate most of his force with specialized training.
So far 72 of his 650 veteran officers now have specialized training about the mentally ill.
About 200 officers in the county have received the specialized training known as “crisis intervention team” training, said Marilyn Cook, executive director of Comcare, the community mental health center for Sedgwick County. When a family member calls 911 when a mentally ill relative is causing problems, they can request that a CIT-trained officer be sent, if one is available.
Danny Bardezbain, the Sedgwick County undersheriff, has taken that training. He said Williams is right to invest heavily in it. When he was chief of the Eastborough Police Department, he said, he saw one of his officers use the CIT training. “I was amazed,” Bardezbain said. “All it took was an extra 15 minutes. And no one had to fight, no one had to go to jail, or go to the hospital.”
Family members say that officers trained to deal with the mentally ill bring a patience that can defuse a crisis. A 63-year-old Wichita woman whose adult son has had a number of encounters with police believes in the training Williams is using.
“My son is not a violent person. He worries about other people,” she said.
But “when he is not well … you don’t know what can happen, because he’s talking to the televisions, the voices are talking to him, he’s very delusional,” said the woman, who is not being identified to protect the identity of her son.
“The voices are telling him one thing, and you are trying to talk to him” at the same time, she said.
The mother recalled a confrontation years ago in which sheriff’s officers came to her son’s home to take him to a hospital. He didn’t want to go. He had a baseball bat.
“They said they almost shot him,” she said.
Her impression, she said, is that the officers “barged in,” stoking his resistance.
But during another crisis, officers with the special training approached him in a nonthreatening way. He went willingly that time.
“He’s had experience where they’ve tased him or roughed him up. Not all of them are like that. … It’s kind of like who you get,” she said.
The training is crucial, she said. With it, she said, “they save lives.”
Williams said he has asked his staff to continue an internal study on how to add a new 40-hour training course on mental illness to the standard training all recruits receive.
In the coming year, Williams said he also hopes to create a program in which his officers engage more directly than ever, in nonconfrontational ways, with Wichita’s homeless population, which includes a fair number of mentally ill people.
His staff is studying ways to implement his plans and determine how much they will cost.
Williams and mental health experts said people with agendas have scapegoated the mentally ill in the national debate after Newtown. That isn’t fair to the afflicted or their families, Williams said.
In Williams’ opinion we have made a mistake in “finger-pointing at each other,” one side about gun rights, another about gun control.
Torrey, the author and psychiatrist, is executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Maryland.
He said he thinks gun control laws won’t solve the massacre problem.
Like Williams, he said most mentally ill are harmless.
He has studied them for decades, has written books about them and the violence about 10 percent of them commit.
He also quotes from a study done in late 2011, by Michael Biasotti, the chief of police of Windsor, N.Y. Biasotti surveyed 2,400 senior law enforcement officials from every state. They told him they see growing numbers of mentally ill people on the streets, among the homeless, and in their jails. Sixty percent told him that at least 1 in 5 people who have killed or wounded law enforcement officers were suffering from a psychiatric crisis at the time.
Torrey’s own most recent study, “No Room at the Inn, Trends and Consequences of Closing Public Psychiatric Hospitals,” shows what Torrey describes as a dangerous series of decisions in the mental health field starting in the 1960s. Nationally, Torrey said, there were 559,000 people in mental hospitals in 1957. There are only about 43,000 now. If those numbers were extrapolated to dovetail with our much larger U.S. population, there would be 2 million in mental hospitals if we did things like in the 1950s.
Torrey said health care people began releasing patients during the early 1960s when new drugs appeared to control mental illness.
But later, mental health people realized that many ill people refuse to take the medications. By then, many hospitals had closed.
In Wichita, Williams said, young officers in the 1970s and early 1980s had what he thought was a sensible and humane system. There was a mental health facility, E.B. Allen, now the home of the KU School of Medicine.
“They had beds, medications and staff,” Williams said.
Now, he said, the mentally ill sit in jail at taxpayer expense, or walk the streets, some of them self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs, some of them committing crimes. One factor that increases the likelihood that a mentally ill person will commit a crime is substance use, said Cook, the Comcare director. Alcohol or drugs often become the trigger.
Taxpayers foot the bill far more than they realize, Williams and other law enforcement officers said.
The only real effort to deal with seriously mentally ill people now, Williams said, is to take them to Via Christi Hospital on Harry, but this raises hospital and police costs. One mentally ill person taken to Via Christi, Williams said, can tie up one officer for an entire eight-hour shift. “We send an officer in with them, to protect the person, to protect doctors and staff.”
There are other costs.
About one-fourth of the state’s prison population is seriously mentally ill, said Jeremy Barclay, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections. Of the most seriously mentally ill who have been incarcerated, about 36 percent return to prison after release, Barclay said.
According to the Sedgwick County undersheriff, Bardezbain, of the 1,200 inmates currently lodged at the county jail, 32 percent, nearly one out of three, “has received or is currently receiving treatment for mental illness.”
One out of three of 1,200 inmates is 400 inmates. By jail estimates it costs taxpayers $67.78 a day to incarcerate an inmate. Take that cost times 400 inmates and you get $9.9 million per year for jailing mentally ill in the county.
A hidden but dramatic cost, Torrey said, is that “police officers have become our frontline mental health workers since 1957. And jails and prisons have become the inpatient units.” This problem is growing worse, and poses safety risks for officers, Torrey said. “Your chief is right to be concerned about this,” he said.
Asked whether local budget cuts in social programs have put his officers in jeopardy, Williams said he wanted to insist on “no finger-pointing.”
“Is it fair? Probably not, but budget cuts are the hand that is dealt to us in law enforcement. But rather than blaming government, we need to find a well-considered way to respond to this, and you don’t get a well-considered solution by finger-pointing.”