Mental illness factors in rising number of police contacts with public: McCarthy

 

Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy sounded an alarm last week, saying that his department’s amount of contact with mentally ill men, women and children is escalating quickly—a situation he admitted that police “don’t have all the answers” for.

“In 2011, there were two involuntary committals of [mentally ill] people we came in contact with for a variety of reasons. In 2012, we had 24; in 2013, 70; in 2014, 162,” he told a crowd of about 180 business leaders as part of Orland Park Mayor Daniel McLaughlin’s annual State of the Village Address last week.

McCarthy, who was applauded twice by the crowd for his more than 20 years of service as the village’s top law enforcement official, said that part of the surge in police contact with the mentally ill can be explained by drug abuse and “the use of social media by our youngsters.

“Almost 50 percent of the committals are people age 21 years and younger,” McCarthy said. “When I mention social media, that’s the lifeblood of the new generation—and often times, there will be a minor dispute—and then they’ll Tweet out or send a text or something like that they’re going to harm themselves or others. Police are called, and we intervene in those situations.”

McCarthy said that his department has “taken some steps to address it better,” including specialized training last year for six officers as a first step towards giving the force a round-the-clock crisis-intervention team to better address potentially dangerous situations involving people with mental illness.

The chief said the new trend “affects us in many ways. Training costs money, taking officers off the line, so to speak, to send them to training leaves openings that we have to fill.

“We have now become a little bit like psychologists and psychiatrists, to handle these type of issues and to do the best we can to make sure they don’t become violent,” McCarthy added.

He noted that 27 percent of the people the department involuntarily committed last year “were not from Orland Park, but they were in Orland Park for one reason or another—visiting relatives, shopping, or having some other business here.”

Formation of crisis intervention teams in local police departments was called for last year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“Police are often the first responders when a person is in psychiatric distress” said NAMI officials in written testimony submitted last year to a U.S. Senate subcommittee. “Every community owes it to them to provide the knowledge and training to handle mental health crisis situations safely and compassionately.

“At the same time, people living with mental illness—through no fault of their own—deserve to be helped through appropriate understanding and de-escalation tactics,” the NAMI statement continued. “Ultimately, we should be promoting treatment rather than warehousing them in jails and prisons.”

Palos Park Police Chief Joe Miller said that his force has seen an increase in contact with mentally ill.

Today, officers respond more to calls about someone expressing suicidal behavior, throwing furniture in frustrated despair or talking about paranoid fears, than I have ever seen in my career,” Miller told The Regional. “We deal with an increasing number of police calls that involve mental health crises, depression to schizophrenia to bipolar disorder.”

          Miller added that “the person who is the subject of the call may not be taking prescribed medications or may be taking other drugs and experiencing mental health problems.

          “We work with our officers to learn to recognize the signs of mental illness, and look for signs of someone is showing symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,” the chief said. “Walking into a situation involving a psychiatric crisis is frightening and potentially dangerous, but we want our officers to be aware that our first thoughts should not be to arrest, because they will not solve the problem.  [Mentally ill people] are sick and need help.”

          Palos Heights Deputy Police Chief William Czajkowski told The Regional News that the issue is an ongoing concern, but that the department’s data shows no spike in contact with people with mental illness.

page2 2cols McCarthyMcLaughlin-with-mental-illness-story 031915-copy

Supplied photo

Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy shares his concern about increasing encounters with the mental ill by frontline law enforcement agencies, as Mayor Dam McLaughlin listens.

 

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