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Thursday, May 12, 2011 11:10 am

How should police handle the mentally ill?

Champaign has a written policy, but Springfield does not

William Wilkins says he was simply walking in the street on New Year’s Eve when a Springfield police officer stopped him for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

Wilkins, 55 and a resident of Springfield, claims he has been detained by city or county law enforcement in Springfield another four times since New Year’s Eve. Each time, he says, he has simply been walking or otherwise minding his own business. But it isn’t being detained that bothers him the most; it’s how he is treated.

Wilkins says he is a survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in New York City, which he says left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder caused by experiencing a traumatic event involving the risk of serious injury or death. He carries a large case containing multiple prescribed medications to manage his anxiety, and he sees a psychiatrist regularly.

He says the police he has encountered have been aggressive and confrontational, That’s exactly the opposite of how they should treat the mentally ill, he asserts. When someone – a police officer, for example – tries to restrain him, Wilkins says he has an involuntary, uncontrollable urge to struggle and fight because of his PTSD.

In his New Year’s Eve encounter with the Springfield Police, Wilkins was arrested and taken to the Sangamon County Jail on charges of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and obstructing identification. Those charges were later dropped, as was a charge of walking on the highway.

Wilkins worries that his next encounter with police could see him accidentally killed by officers who think he is intentionally fighting them. He points to the case of Patrick Burns, a 50-year-old Springfield resident who died Jan. 28, 2011, after struggling with Sangamon County sheriff’s deputies. Burns was Tazered 21 times during the fight, and his family is currently suing the Sangamon County Sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Neil Williamson says his department is “on the cutting edge” of training, including being among the first departments in the state to implement Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for certain officers, which aids in handling people who may not have committed a crime, but who exhibit erratic or dangerous behavior.

“Even with the CIT training, we can’t expect our deputies to make a street diagnosis,” Williamson says. “Our first priority is the safety of the public and our deputies.”

Though the department doesn’t have a written protocol for handling a mentally ill subject, Williamson says his deputies have basic training to recognize when a CIT officer is needed. Having a written protocol could even open the department up to lawsuits if the protocol isn’t followed to the letter, he notes.

Dennis Arnold, deputy chief of field operations for the Springfield Police Department, says SPD has between 25 and 30 CIT officers who are trained to “develop a dialogue and  diffuse the situation.” Though SPD does not have a written protocol for handling a mentally ill subject, he says each situation is unique, so an officer must use his or her experience and training to make an educated decision about any subject.

“We go into every incident anticipating the worst,” Arnold says. “If you underestimate person, that’s how you get hurt.”

Wilkins notes that the Champaign Police Department has a written protocol for handling “excited delirium” – a controversial term describing a state in which an individual exhibits erratic movement or behavior, insensitivity to pain and even superhuman strength, often associated with drug abuse. Former Sangamon County Coroner Susan Boone ruled Patrick Burns’ death a case of excited delirium. If Champaign has a written protocol, why doesn’t Sangamon County or the City of Springfield?

The answer, according to Williamson, is that Champaign uses tranquilizer shots in excited delirium cases, but former Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt “wouldn’t sign off on it.”

Williamson also draws a distinction in the case of Patrick Burns. The deputies in that case had probable cause to detain and arrest Burns, he says, so that case was handled differently than would be a mentally ill subject who may simply be displaying erratic behavior.

Wilkins now carries a card with his psychiatrist’s contact information and a list of his medications in case he has future encounters with police.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he says. “I lived in New York [City] for several years and never had this type of problem there. I don’t want to move, but if this doesn’t stop, I may have to.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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