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When mental health and crime collide - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

When mental health and crime collide

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

An armed gunman poised to do battle with police put a Newport neighborhood on edge Wednesday. After a five-hour standoff the suspect was arrested and arraigned. Derick Niles had several outbursts during his brief court appearance.

Orleans County State's Attorney Alan Franklin says Niles was louder and more irrational than in past court appearances, but it wasn't his first run-in with the Newport man. In 2011, Franklin says Niles chased him around the courthouse badgering him about a pending criminal charge while filming the interaction. It prompted the prosecutor to ask the court for a competency evaluation.

"It seemed irrational," Franklin said. "It never happened before and it was odd behavior coupled with some other odd behavior in the courtroom. Every time he's been in the courtroom he's pretty boisterous."

Ultimately, Niles was found competent to stand trial, but this standoff now has the court questioning his mental health once again. Niles was ordered to an inpatient psychiatric evaluation. He'll also be examined for competency and insanity.

Nationally, statistics show 12 percent of the population has some sort of mental illness. But only 3 percent with the most severe and persistent problems get treatment, leaving the remaining 9 percent in flux.

Here in Vermont, mental health and crime often collide in the courts. The Vt. Department of Mental Health says the numbers of Vermonters ordered to undergo mental health evaluations has remained relatively static over the last year.

An annual survey looks at the number of court-ordered evaluations over a month-long period. This year, there were 20 evaluations ordered; eight of those were then sent on for a more extensive inpatient evaluation. Last year, there were 19 evaluations during the monthlong review and six sent for an inpatient evaluation.

But the state's busiest police department is seeing a very different trend.

"It's not uncommon for us to spend an entire day with one officer or sometimes two officers engaged in one mental health response," Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling said.

Schirling says his department is dealing with a significant spike in mental health calls. Between 2007 and 2012, calls to BPD for mental health events jumped by 300 percent, from 167 to 499. And the numbers keep rising. So far this year the department has received 470 mental health calls, putting them on pace for more than 600 for the year. A 375-percent increase and these are only calls where mental health was the primary concern.

"So, other types of things like assaults, trespasses, disturbances, vandalism that might have a mental health component, might be driven by mental health aren't covered in that count," Schirling explained.

The chief says it's a drain on resources and although officers are trained to de-escalate situations, they're not always the best option to respond to folks in crisis.

"We expect law enforcement officers to be able to be clinicians to diagnose what they're dealing with and be able to intervene in this very nuanced and complicated way," Schirling said. "What we're able to bring to the table isn't a viable solution for the person. It's just a Band-Aid to get that particular day or even just a couple of hours."

Schirling says the bar keeps rising for folks to get mental health help. Historically, if you were a danger to yourself or others, treatment was available. Then the standard evolved to an imminent threat to yourself or others, and now the chief says you have to harm yourself or someone else before getting a bed in a treatment facility. But he says the state is working on a number of solutions, including creative fixes like street outreach teams and peer support groups.

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