Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Police Training Yes, Treatment Definitely

Man dies after scuffle with police,” read the first headline coming out of a police killing of a man with schizophrenia in Rhode Island.  The next day, “Questions linger about man’s death in policy custody,” became the topic. 

This also happened to be the third such police killing this year of someone with a mental illness in the small state.  The tragedies have attracted attention and, to some extent, action. 

 “Kennedy proposes intervention team for mentally ill,” is now the most recent news generated as a result of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) stepping forward to talk about potential solutions.  Rep. Kennedy, who has successfully fought for additional federal funding of better police training and other measures, was right to focus attention on the issue. 

While the issue of mental health is in focus, Rhode Island should examine how difficult the law currently makes it for someone suffering from a mental illness to get into treatment.  This would be a major step forward in preventing these tragedies, and in improving the lives of those with mental illness.

Rhode Island currently has a tough standard to meet before someone can be put into treatment.  A person with a mental illness must present signs that there is a substantial risk of harm manifested by grave, clear and present risk to physical health and safety.  A clear and present danger may make for a good Tom Clancy thriller, but it doesn’t make for a good law.  Too often by the time that standard is met, tragedy has struck.

Rep. Kennedy initially called for a statewide crisis team to assist mentally ill people and their families anytime the police are involved.  He suggested the idea admitting that not all the facts were yet known, but that clearly something needs to be done.  Changing the law to assist family members who are trying to get care for a loved one with a severe mental illness would be a good place to start.  That would provide family members, the police, and any crisis team that might be formed with a real tool that could help avoid tragedy before it strikes.