At Issue: Mental health & police response - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

At Issue: Mental health & police response

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Reporter: "Are our officers becoming that first line of care in mental health?"

Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling: "They absolutely are."

Chief Schirling says mental health calls are up nearly 400 percent in five years.

"When things are going poorly, the only people to call are police officers," he says. "And I think we need to take a hard look at creating alternatives, not just in Burlington, not just in Vermont, but this is a national problem."

The Chief says people who really need mental health treatment are ending up in jail. On November 4, Burlington Police responded to the Winooski Bridge for a jumper. 

"He didn't threaten to jump, he didn't say 'stop me from jumping', he actually jumped. He survived that. He was released. He wasn't put into any kind of in patient treatment and the week later called us and said, 'I've got a gun and I'm going to shoot myself,'" Schirling says.

They went to the man's house, set up a perimeter and started negotiating.

"He came out of his house holding, what ended up being a television remote, to his head after telling us that he wanted us to kill him. He's now in jail," says Schirling.

The Chief says at least once a month Burlington officers respond to situations where a suspect has made it clear that they want the police to kill them, something known as suicide by cop.

"The guy from the bridge is in jail for making a false public alarm. The facts fit. It's not like he's there illegally, but it's a perverted use of the criminal justice system where we should be using a mental health system," Schirling says. "Meanwhile, we're using a bed in the criminal justice system that we could use for someone who's dealing drugs or doing burglaries or armed robberies or something else."

Reporter: "Instead a man who jumped off a bridge but couldn't get help afterwards is now in jail."

The Chief says the emergency room is overwhelmed by mental health cases.

"We don't have enough beds for people in serious mental health crisis. We don't have enough middle ground placements for folks who don't need locked facilities, but do need day to day help to manage their lives. We don't have enough outpatient beds. what some clinicians I've talked to refer to as tune up centers," he says.

When officers respond to one of the 500 mental health calls a year the chief says, often, they don't know what they'll face.

"Is that altered mental status a psychological problem? Or is it physiological? Or are they diabetic and suffering from an altered mental status? Are they suffering from an altered mental status as a result of a head injury are they the victim of an assault that we're responding to who's now manifesting in a violent way because they have a closed head injury? It's incredibly complicated," he says.

Burlington's Police Chief says the breakdown in the system cannot be ignored. 

"How much more of an initial, significant call for help can you make than jumping off a bridge into frigid Winooski river that night? We've just got to do a better job," he says.

The Chief says over the next six weeks the department will assess the effectiveness of having a trained mental health worker responding to calls.

If it is working, he says, the Burlington Police Department may hire another person as a crisis responder.

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