Cops, EMTs train in mental health first aid in Detroit

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some 24 police officers and first responders who work in Wayne County will receive training this week in mental health first aid through funding from the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority and the Flinn Foundation.

The authority has trained 10,000 people locally in mental health first aid since 2013. This week’s effort was special, officials said Monday, because it would benefit the police officers and firefighters and first aid responders who have regular — and sometimes violent — contact with people struggling with mental illnesses.

Participants who go through the 40-hour training program, conducted by the National Council for Behavioral Health, will be certified, allowing them to train colleagues in eight-hour sessions.

Amy Dunn, a firefighter with Downriver Mutual Aid, has been on the job for 20 years but never received training on how to handle people with mental health issues until this week’s program.

“We get all the training you could want on fires or medical issues but absolutely none on mental health,” Dunn said.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig, whose department sent three officers to the training, called it a “good first step” but stressed the importance of follow-up.

“We’re very reactive on mental health issues. We’re not invested in getting (patients) the appropriate treatment” until a “horrific tragedy” happens, such as the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012, the chief said.

“This is an issue that touches me deeply,” Craig said. “The (mental health) system is broken and remains broken today.”

In 2008, Craig lost a man he described as his best friend, Los Angeles Police Department SWAT officer Randy Simmons, in an incident involving a suspect with mental health issues. The man had killed three family members before shooting Simmons and another officer. Simmons died in the attack, the first SWAT officer in L.A. to be killed in the line of duty.

Craig spent decades in the Los Angeles Police Department.

Earlier this year, two Detroit EMS paramedics, Alfredo Rojas and Kelly Adams, were attacked in the line of duty, stabbed and slashed by someone reported to have mental health issues. They were responding to a call about a woman with a sore ankle, Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones said Monday.

Craig, who led an effort to bring Tasers to the police department in Portland, Maine, when he served as chief, also advocated for Detroit police officers to be equipped with stun guns.

“I’m hopeful that one day we can equip all Detroit officers with a Taser,” he said. Craig called Tasers “another tool” officers can use in lieu of lethal force.

Jones said he hoped the training would “arm” paramedics with the tools needed to deal with the mentally ill, including verbal judo and de-escalation tactics. But EMTs are not allowed to be armed, with Tasers or otherwise, a condition Jones has not advocated for change.

When the paramedics were attacked, “the first call I got was from Tom Watkins,” CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, Jones said. Detroit EMTs conduct 127,000-plus runs per year, Jones said, and 19 paramedics have been assaulted in the past two years.

Said Watkins: “We need to remember that each of these people we encounter (with mental health issues) are someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s mother or daughter.”

Watkins said mental health issues are often “at the bottom of the list” of public safety concerns, but shouldn’t be.

Mental health issuescome at a human cost as well as a financial cost, said Robert Dunlap, chief of the jail system in Wayne County. Dunlap said while the average inmate costs the county about $165 per day, the average inmate with mental health issues can cost anywhere from three to 10 times as much. He told the story of one inmate who had been arrested “over 159 times,” spending 800-plus days in jail at a cost of $136,000.

The Wayne County Jail has spent some $95 million over the last decade to house and care for inmates with mental health issues, Dunlap said.

“We’re one of the largest mental health institutions in the state,” Dunlap said. “When I started as an officer in the Detroit Police Department, there were a lot of options (for people with mental health issues). Now I’m in the jail system, and we are the option.”

By the early 2000s, Michigan had closed most state-run mental institutions. As a result, law enforcement officials say they have had to carry an additional burden.

Westland Mayor William Wild, who leads Michigan’s 10th largest city, said its Police Department sent two officers to the training.

“This requires training beyond what is offered in the academy,” Wild said.

The training, said Dr. Carmen McIntyre, chief medical officer of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, will include role plays, videos on how to spot the signs of mental health troubles, instruction on what to say and what not to say, and instruction on dealing with patients facing panic attacks, overdose and withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, psychosis and more.

McIntyre called the training a means for participants to “save lives and stay safe” in the line of duty.