Should Departments Train Police To Handle Excited Delirium or Mental Illness?

department handle mental illnessDid excited delirium result in the death of an Oklahoma City man? Are law enforcement equipped and trained to deal with mental distress and mental illness?

An allegedly delusional man was arrested on May 2, 2013 near 1400 block of NW 99 of Oklahoma City, OK.  The man was apparently in a state of mental distress when responding officers placed him in restraints and transported him for treatment.  In the process, police took Clifton Armstrong to the ground and applied physical restraints.  Shortly thereafter paramedics were called to the scene after Mr. Armstrong stopped breathing.  Armstrong was later pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital.

There is no indication that a crisis intervention team was utilized or available.

Should departments train police officers to use crisis intervention teams in response to calls regarding a citizen experiencing or exhibiting signs of mental illness or mental distress?

The history of crisis intervention teams started in Memphis, TN in the late 1980’s.  Law enforcement  experimented with a new approach to handling circumstances and people exhibiting mental distress or mental illness. Instead of hauling vast numbers of people to jail for everything from disorderly conduct to obstruction charges, police officers received training on how to deal with mentally ill individuals. In Memphis, a statistic was released that fewer than one percent of the calls handled by the crisis intervention team resulted in arrest (compared to nearly 20 percent of the estimated national average for similar calls).

Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) are designed to provide a more humane and professional response to people experiencing a serious mental health crisis. Many departments from around the country have implemented CITs to handle and diffuse situations which could spiral out of control or result in the unnecessary use of force or an unnecessary arrest. While departments vary, the Memphis model, followed by several other cities, includes 40 hours of specialized training for officers.  Training generally includes recognizing mental illness, psychopharmacology, on-site visits to mental health facilities and crisis deescalation skills.

Was Oklahoma City prepared for a situation like Armstrong’s?

Paul Hight was a Catholic priest who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, 2000, police visited his Oklahoma City apartment after neighbors called to report that he was banging on doors and ranting. Hight confronted the officers with a kitchen knife; they shot him dead.

Following his death, Hight’s brother became instrumental in forming a nonprofit to bring law enforcement and mental health focus groups together to support the creation of a crisis intervention team in Oklahoma City. Today, the 600-officer department has 117 certified crisis intervention team members. Capt. Bob Nash says they aim to keep 20 to 25 percent of all officers certified, to keep certified officers available on every shift in every area when police encounter what Sgt. Keith Simonds calls “a sick consumer.”

There is no indication that the four law enforcement officers involved in the in-custody death of Armstrong were crisis intervention officers, or whether they received the specialized training. There is also no indication of how Oklahoma City police officers– crisis intervention officers or not– respond to calls or receive notification of “crisis” calls.

Law enforcement is a difficult job and involves constantly evaluating spontaneous events and analyzing a new scene at every call. Ensuring that appropriate tools and training are available for law enforcement could assist officers in evaluating how best to manage persons with severe mental health concerns.

Contact Bryan & Terrill Law

Bryan & Terrill Law has experience in evaluating cases that involve arrests where excited delirium, mental distress or mental illness are present.

Our firm has represented clients and pursued lawsuits where interactions with law enforcement  resulted in avoidable death or preventable injury.

If you have questions about excessive force used in response to a mental health situation, contact the attorneys at Bryan & Terrill, 918-935-2777.