Politics & Government

S.C. House panel airs bills to defuse cop encounters with mentally ill

Paton Blough at a House subcommittee meeting Thursday
Paton Blough at a House subcommittee meeting Thursday jmonk@thestate.com

Health care and police advocates appearing before a S.C. House subcommittee on Thursday pushed for new state laws they said would help de-escalate potentially explosive confrontations between police and mentally ill people.

Requiring police officers to have special training for dealing with the mentally ill would benefit both police and the mentally ill, said Paton Blough, 39, a Greenville resident who told subcommittee members of his six encounters with police while mentally troubled.

“Three of those arrests went well; three of those arrests turned violent. I believe the times I was calmly arrested had to do with the way officers dealt with me and not a difference in my mental state,” Blough said.

“All six times, I was under the delusion I was a god and police were trying to murder me,” he said. “... The officers’ ability to slow down and control the situation through verbal techniques was the main factor in calming my fears of death.”

In recent years, Blough’s personal experiences with mental illness have turned him into a state and national spokesman on ways to defuse confrontations between mentally ill people and police, who are often the first responders to calls concerning mentally ill people who might pose a danger to themselves or others. A board member of National Alliance on Mental Illness South Carolina, Blough now controls his illness through medication and various cognitive techniques.

The bill that Blough supports would set up “crisis intervention teams” operated through the sheriff’s department in each county, with specially trained officers who know how to deal with the mentally ill. It would also require more training by law enforcement officers in how to deal with mentally ill people.

“Law enforcement, health care, the (S.C.) Department of Mental Health — everyone who deals with or touches a mentally ill issue — would be part of a team to create a statewide crisis intervention program,” said Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, chairman of the Constitutional Laws subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, in an interview after the hearing.

The committee took no action on the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville, and modeled on an Indiana law. The subcommittee will air the bill again next week.

The subcommittee did forward to the House Judiciary Committee another bill that would allow for more flexibility in how mentally ill people in non-emergency situations are transported to mental care facilities — either by ambulance or police car. Currently, many mentally ill people are transported in a police car. That bill also says that, “preferably,” specially trained police officers in civilian clothes should deal with mentally ill people to defuse a situation.

“Mental illness is a health care issue, and in those cases where a person is not an actual danger to himself or other people, that person should be transported in an ambulance and not in the back of a police car while handcuffed,” said Bannister, who is sponsoring that bill.

Bannister said he was a supporter of more training in how to deal with the mentally ill for new officers at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.

The discussion is part of a broader conversation about how to handle the many mentally ill South Carolinians who are not in psychiatric facilities but who at times interact with police and jail systems.

New police officers currently have nine hours of training on how to deal with mentally ill people. But a 40-hour course would be far better, Bannister said. That would add another week to the current 12 weeks of training for all officers.

Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association, who was at the meeting, said of the provisions to require officers to have more training to deal with the mentally ill, “It’s a great concept, and we don’t oppose it.

“But we have 17,000 law officers in the state, and they are considering 40 hours of training, and that would be very difficult for small departments.” Bruder also said how to pay for all the extra training is still an open question.