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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Joe Smydo and Rich Lord

Responding to a 911 call of a man trying to force his sister from an apartment, Pittsburgh police encountered Ian Bankert on a Lawrenceville street and repeatedly ordered him to stand still so they could speak with him.

He remained quiet and “kept walking like I wasn’t even there,” one officer wrote of Mr. Bankert, who was tackled, arrested and ultimately found too mentally ill to face charges in the November 2013 incident.

Because of a growing number of calls involving mental illness, some police departments have embraced Crisis Intervention Team training that encourages officers to use a special weapon — verbal skills — to identify and confront individuals in crisis. Though widely hailed for encouraging officers to use de-escalation techniques instead of force, CIT is no panacea.

Many of the Allegheny County municipalities with the most psychiatric-related emergency calls have steered no officers to CIT training, according to training and dispatching data.

Over five years, 18 municipalities — led by Homestead, Stowe, McKees Rocks and Braddock — logged more than 50 psych calls per 1,000 residents. Of those 18 communities, only Braddock, Bellevue and Wilkinsburg had sent any officers for CIT training, according to county Department of Human Services data.

Even if departments have CIT-trained personnel, there is no guarantee that they will be dispatched on every mental-health call or that trained officers will have time, or take the time, to use CIT skills when confronted with a suspect who seems ill. The Port Authority, which has five officers with CIT training, has not said whether any of them was present when troubled Bruce Kelley Jr. was fatally shot in a Jan. 31 encounter that also cost the life of a police dog.

Pittsburgh police have put 343 officers through CIT training, but it is is unclear whether any of them took part in arresting Mr. Bankert, who has schizophrenia.

“It hurt him,” Mr. Bankert’s father, David, said of the encounter and the several months that followed, during which Ian spent time in Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Allegheny County Jail and Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County. He said he wishes police had spent more time talking with his son before trying to arrest him and suggested that police and people with mental illness alike receive training on how to interact with each other.

Can’t spare an officer

When the National Alliance for Caregiving last year asked 1,601 families affected by mental illness to propose changes to the treatment system, training for police and other first responders surfaced as a key issue.

Gail Gibson Hunt, group president and CEO, said caregivers “are concerned that somebody acts out and a neighbor or somebody calls the police, and the next thing you know, there is a person who’s arrested and held maybe for a couple of days until his parents can bail him out.” In jail, she added, a person’s illness may get worse.

CIT, which originated in Memphis in 1988 following a police officer’s fatal shooting of a mentally ill man, is designed to prevent unnecessary arrests and incarcerations. Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Mercy provide the week-long training, free of charge, several times a year. However, many of the police departments most likely to benefit from CIT do not, or cannot, send officers.

“Once I’m back up to full staff, I could spare somebody. But right now, there’s no way I could do it,” said Mt. Oliver Police Chief Matt Juzwick, whose force — able to field just two officers per shift — contends with one of the county’s highest concentrations of psych calls. “If I paid 40 hours overtime [to cover for an officer in] training, council would have my butt.”

He said it would be easier to send an officer to training one day per week, for five weeks. “One day a week? I absolutely could,” he said.

For now, Chief Juzwick often has to handle mental health calls himself, relying on experience, rather than CIT training, when, for instance, a resident stood in the middle of a street and began cutting himself with razors. He calmed the man down and got him hospitalized.

“We’re handling it the best that we can with the resources we have,” he said.

East Pittsburgh police Chief Lori Fruncek, whose 15 officers all work part-time, suggested that splitting the training into classroom and online components could help departments like hers to handle, say, Westinghouse Bridge jumpers.

Dispatching dilemma

The Post-Gazette has asked the Port Authority whether CIT-trained officers were on duty and involved in the Kelley encounter. A spokesman declined to discuss the incident, but said that the agency’s police department now has five officers with full CIT training, and that last year every officer got a four-hour course in mental health crises.

Officers said that Kelley, 37, and his father, Bruce Kelley Sr., were seen drinking in a busway gazebo in Wilkinsburg.

Police said the pair fought with officers, and the son pulled a pocketknife. When pepper spray and Tasers failed to subdue him, police released a dog, Aren. The younger Kelley fatally stabbed the dog. Port Authority Officer Brian O’Malley shot him 10 times, while another officer shot twice.

Kelley Jr.’s criminal history included a judge’s order for a mental health assessment, a referral to counseling in Washington, Pa., and an order for psychiatric treatment at a Downtown halfway house. Relatives believe he was schizophrenic, said Noah Geary, an attorney representing the family.

Even in the extensively-trained Pittsburgh bureau, there is no guarantee that CIT officers will respond to all mental health calls. Officer Patricia Poloka, the Pittsburgh police wellness and resource coordinator, who has run the bureau’s CIT program since January, has not yet analyzed how often trained officers get dispatched to those incidents.

However, she said county dispatchers are given a zone-by-zone list of CIT officers on duty in the city at the start of every shift. Dispatchers may ask CIT officers to break away from other calls to handle mental health emergencies, and officers who haven’t had the training may ask for CIT backup if they encounter a person in crisis.

Michael Woody, a former police officer who is now the president of CIT International, a professional association, said it isn’t the training so much as repeatedly handling mental health calls that makes an officer proficient. “In no time, they become an expert.”

The University of Memphis CIT Center recommends that departments evaluate their CIT programs for such factors as whether they reduce injuries to officers or the public, decrease arrests and recidivism, improve public perception of the police or meet other goals.

While neither the city nor the county has conducted such an evaluation, Officer Poloka said she reviews reports that her colleagues—regardless of whether they are trained in CIT—must file after psychiatric-related calls. If the call could have been better handled, she said, she contacts the officer to suggest how.

She said she also mines the reports for examples of when CIT training worked and goes to the zone stations to present awards to officers involved in those calls. She recently honored 11 officers, including a CIT-trained officer from Zone 2, after they kept a man from leaping from a bridge on Valentine’s Day.

Not all mental health calls are that dramatic. Westmoreland County Park Police Officer Jim Shaffer, who also is police chief in Avonmore, said he regularly uses the training to soothe agitated or distraught people in county buildings and public spaces.

“There are people that do care. I am one,” Officer Shaffer said.

CIT emphasizes treatment over incarceration. On 68 occasions last fiscal year, local police took people in crisis to Pittsburgh Mercy’s Central Recovery Center on the South Side, where patients often can be stabilized, connected with outpatient services and released within a couple of days.

The process operates particularly well when CIT officers are the ones bringing someone in, said Bob Adamson, Pittsburgh Mercy’s senior director of behavioral health services.

In reviewing troubled big-city police departments around the country, the U.S. Justice Department has cited weaknesses in CIT programs and suggested that improvements would decrease use-of-force complaints.

In Albuquerque, N.M., the number of CIT officers lagged the city’s needs, and de-escalation techniques were “too easily dismissed by heavily armed tactical units,” the department said in 2014. Also that year, it criticized Cleveland police for scheduling and dispatching lapses that failed to get CIT officers to mental health calls on a consistent basis. In 2012, the department described a flawed training program in Portland, Ore., that did not expose participants to people with mental illness, substituted discussions for role-playing and failed to inculcate an understanding of the mental health consumer’s special needs.

According to Officer Poloka’s description, Pittsburgh has avoided such shortfalls. “I think it’s a respected program in our department,” she said, noting officers must have the training to serve in supervisory roles or prestigious positions, such as hostage negotiator.

While some experts say CIT training should be reserved for officers who volunteer and who are interested in mental health, Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay wants all officers to have it.

A bill Gov. Tom Wolf signed last year requires an unspecified amount of mental health training for police officers and district judges, and some police departments have developed their own capacity for handling mental health calls.

Moon police Chief Leo McCarthy, who wrote his master’s thesis on mental illness and policing and covered the subject in a police officer training course he taught at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said he is well versed in state mental health law and makes sure his officers are, too.

Though his department regularly is called out for mental health issues, he said, many involve no criminal activity, only people who need care and help getting to it. He said people with mental illness may not process commands like those who are well — officers should be prepared to repeat themselves numerous times — and may instinctively “pull away” when somebody reaches for them.

“They don’t like to be touched.”

Tasered, front and back

Jennifer M. Balson’s 2014 drunk driving arrest resulted in an odyssey through the Mon Valley, which is beset by some of the region’s highest concentrations of psych calls but largely devoid of CIT-trained officers.

Ms. Balson has overcome abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder to succeed first as a professional wrestler — performing as Veronica Von Irons — and then as a trainer. But in her thirties she turned to binge drinking. In April 2014, East Pittsburgh police stopped her.

The officers took her to the Turtle Creek station for a breathalyzer test, which confirmed that she was drunk. They then took her to North Versailles “for holding until she was deemed sober,” according to the affidavit.

All of those municipalities are in the top 20 in terms of the density of psych-related disturbances. None of the three has sent an officer for CIT training.

The police affidavit describing Ms. Balson’s arrest indicates no resistance until officers tried to put her in a cell. At that point she asked for a pillow, “thrashed at” officers and “attempted to kick” one, police wrote, adding that they “deployed Taser cartridges simultaneously into the female’s back and front torso.”

“They had me cuffed. They were pushing me toward the door,” Ms. Balson recounted in February. “I jumped. I juked. I didn’t hit anybody.”

Police filed 17 criminal counts, including two felonies, aggravated assault and assault by a prisoner. “As far as we were concerned, she was just a DUI and got combative,” said Chief Fruncek.

Ms. Balson spent a week in jail, and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Under supervision of the county’s Mental Health Court, she said she has quit drinking, instead bicycling and teaching at a gym while planning to study geriatric nursing.

She regretted the drinking, but thought the officers could have kept the arrest from going awry.

“I didn’t want to go in the cage,” she said. “They didn’t know how to deal with people.”

David Bankert feels much the same. He said police in North Carolina, where the family now lives, better treated his son on a call there.

“They took a lot of time. They handled it very, very well,” he said, noting his presence on the scene also may have helped.