It was just another Monday when a man walked up to the parking lot of a Rosewood grocery store – naked.
He was not combative or acting erratic, Columbia police officers said. He was just standing there around 7 p.m., in mid-January. Officers would later find his clothes about a mile away, near Devine Street.
“He was looking up at the sky, and saying he was waiting on a sign,” said Capt. Christopher Roberts, the area’s region commander for the Columbia Police Department. “Officers talked to him accordingly, in a calm way.”
Officers determined the man was suffering from an episode related to his mental illness. Instead of being arrested, he was taken to a hospital, Roberts said.
Roberts attributed the response to training Columbia police officers undergo as part of their recertification process. It’s the kind of training mental health advocates are hoping to expand to all of the state’s law enforcement agencies through proposals making their way through the Legislature.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced bills that would require law enforcement officers to complete training in mental health or addictive disorders as part of recertification.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, sponsor of the Senate bill, said it’s unfair to place law enforcement officers in situations they’re not trained to deal with when they’re confronted with a mentally ill person.
“This is to not try to deal with the issue after an arrest, but actually try to help our law enforcement officers and our mentally ill before things escalate,” Sheheen said. “The goal here is to train all law enforcement in de-escalation techniques, and how to cope with people who aren’t necessarily criminals, but suffer from mental illness.”
Warehoused in jails and prisons
Officers without proper training can have difficulty determining whether a person they’re interacting with is mentally ill.
That can lead to the mentally ill being sent to jail for misdemeanors such as loitering, talking to themselves loudly or being a nuisance, said Bill Lindsey, executive director of the South Carolina affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to raise awareness about those affected by mental illnesses.
It can get worse with incarceration, because mental illness can go undiagnosed. Without proper treatment, mentally ill inmates often have time added to their detention or sentence for failing to comply with the directions of jail or prison staffers. The mentally ill usually serve two to two-and-a-half times more time than non-mentally ill inmates, Lindsey said.
“Mental illness is the only disease where people get arrested for having an illness,” Lindsey said. “It’s a medical issue, not a judicial issue.”
Paton Blough, an Upstate resident who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said a manic episode led to his first arrest. He was arrested six times between 2005 and 2008 because of his illness. Half of those arrests turned violent because he feared police were there to kill him.
Blough discovered legislation in Indiana similar to the bills under consideration by both S.C. legislative chambers. He reached out to lawmakers to sponsor legislation here, because he believes it’s vital for officers to the right way to approach a person suffering from a mental episode.
“This bill is important because it saves lives, it helps keep families together. … It’s the right thing to do,” Blough said. “This is a moral issue.”
A slow process
Boosting training, however, can come at a cost.
In mid-February, when the House bill was discussed before a panel, Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, worried about the time training would take away from officers being on the streets patrolling. Tallon suggested another approach.
“It should be done at the academy,” he said. “It should be done as soon as an officer goes through training.”
Would-be officers get training in recognizing people with mental illnesses, but the exact amount of training time is difficult to pin down. Though there is one four and a half-hour designated block of training, cadets get additional training on mental illnesses when learning about harassment, domestic violence and other issues, said Florence McCants, spokeswoman for the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
The House panel ultimately suspended debate on the bill without voting on it. Meanwhile, a Senate panel stripped some components of that chamber’s bill on Wednesday before advancing it.
The Senate panel added a requirement that all of the state’s law enforcement officers – even those with limited arresting capabilities – undergo the training, at the suggestion of Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division.
Through funding allocated in the state budget, National Alliance on Mental Illness trainers already travel to several law enforcement agencies throughout the state to teach a 40-hour course. The decision to have officers undergo the 40-hour training currently lies with the head of each agency.
Lindsey said the course, which is taught to about 20 officers at a time, is intensive. But it allows officers to put into practice what they’ve learned through simulations.
Ideally, the proposed bills would mandate that course for those in training at the academy, Lindsey said. The academy is better equipped to house cadets. But Lindsey said he’s OK with any of the bills, if they lead to more officers being trained.
“If somebody is at the point that police are called, they are in some sort of agitated, advanced state of psychosis,” Lindsey said. “Nine times out of 10, that person is terrified. If officers can be able to de-escalate a situation like that, it would lead to a much better outcome.”