Do officers need more training for crisis intervention?

Published: Mar. 17, 2021 at 5:49 PM EDT
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WEST LEBANON, N.H. (WCAX) - The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office has determined Police Ofc. Matthew Yao was justified for his use of deadly force during an incident back in October that claimed the life of a Thornton man, a man who suffered from mental illness and was in, no doubt, need of help.

“Stay calm, we are here. You are going to be OK,” Ofc. Yao said on Oct. 19, 2020.

Those words turned out not to be true. A couple of hours later, 37-year-old Ethan Freeman, bloodied and naked, charged the officer who shot and killed him. It was the third encounter between the two men that day.

Responding to people in crisis is something police officers deal with all the time.

“We are spending a considerable amount of time responding to the calls that have a mental health component,” Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said.

Crisis intervention training is something officers in Lebanon receive regularly. Chief Mello declined to comment on the Thornton case but said police are seeing an uptick in mental health calls across the country.

“We also focus on de-escalation and a number of other training philosophies that really try to resolve matters and de-escalate matters before they become a serious issue,” Mello said.

According to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, Yao trained his fellow officers on how to use less than lethal force. His body camera video shows his sense of compassion toward Freeman. Yet, the final result was the violent death of an unarmed man. Which poses the question: is additional training needed when it comes to mental health?

“I think it is a huge issue, something that we need to address,” said Cameron Ford, the executive director of Headrest.

Headrest is a crisis intervention and treatment center in Lebanon.

“We work closely together with a lot of different agencies but it is not in a coordinated system,” Ford said.

Ford says progress is being made to increase mobile crisis units across the state, which include police and mental health professionals, but he pushes for more collaboration.

“Help people understand that it is OK to reach out. There is no shame in reaching out and asking for help,” Ford said.

Mello advocates for additional treatment.

“I think residential treatment or the expansion of residential treatment is a big part of that equation,” Mello said.

Last year, a bipartisan bill was signed into law to create a national three-digit number, 988, for mental health crisis intervention. However, that number is not expected to go live until July of next year.

Related Stories:

NH attorney general: Police shooting of unarmed man justified

Officer identified in fatal Grafton County shooting

Man fatally shot by Thornton, NH, police officer

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