Flawed Judgment in Use of Force Against Students?

Only some college and university police officers are being trained to handle students' mental health crises, experts say.

April 19, 2018
 
Cambridge police arrest a Harvard student Friday after he sprinted naked down the street. Their use of force was heavily criticized.

During a Harvard University student’s arrest by Cambridge police for running down a street naked last week, he was tackled and punched repeatedly in the stomach, an act the institution’s president and other local officials deemed “disturbing.”

It’s one in a series of incidents over the last seven months in which the public has questioned police officers’ use of force against college students who may have mental health issues. While the incidents differ, many students on the affected campuses have been alarmed by the way police treated those students.

In September, a suicidal Georgia Tech student was shot dead by a campus police officer who hadn’t completed required crisis training. The shooting led to riots and student demands for more investment in mental health services. And earlier this month, a University of Chicago officer shot and wounded a student who was having a psychotic episode.

While experts say college and university law enforcement personnel are generally being trained well and are equipped to handle such emergencies, they stressed that not enough money and time has been spent on helping students before they reach a point in which police would need to intervene.

Campus police widely are learning to de-escalate such scenarios, but students in those circumstances can be unpredictable and out of control, said Alexa James, executive director of the Chicago branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Mental health science and symptoms can be demonstrated through behaviors that are often mistaken by criminal behaviors,” James said. “When students come in contact with police, there is the opportunity for tragedy, which is why it is so critically important that they feel well trained.”

Ideally, university police forces would be trained with a deep 40-hour program called the Memphis model, in which they’re taught how to ease the stress of a student experiencing a mental health break, James said. Developed by the University of Memphis’s Crisis Intervention Team Center, the training introduces cops to victims of mental health crises. The Atlantic reported that officers trained in this method are much less likely to use force when dealing with people with mental health problems.

James said after the training, officers report being “forever changed” in how they police. Breaking down the stigma of mental health problems and no longer demonizing these people is effective, she said -- but not every department can afford to take their officers off the streets for a full workweek.

The professional organization for campus police forces, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, has recently tried to help on this front. It’s sponsoring a mental health training for law enforcement -- a day-and-half-long session, said Josh Bronson, IACLEA's director of training.

At the University of Chicago, about 85 percent of the officers -- including the officer involved in the recent shooting -- have completed the 40-hour crisis intervention training, said spokesman Marielle Sainvilus. The institution intends to train all its officers, Sainvilus said.

The 21-year-old student, Charles Thomas, suffered a broken shoulder blade and a collapsed lung when the officer shot him -- his family said he likely was having a psychiatric episode. Thomas was holding a metal stake when he faced the officer in an alley -- the officer attempted to back up, but Thomas kept advancing. He had smashed parts of several cars and a glass apartment door.

In the case of the Georgia Tech shooting, the student, Scout Schultz, was simply holding a pocketknife, but it was not extended.

Schultz had left a suicide note and then called police to make a false report of a suspicious person skulking around campus with a weapon. Video reveals Schultz screaming, “Shoot me,” to the officers. It was later revealed that the officer who shot Schultz hadn’t finished his mental health training.

At the time, the university’s critics questioned why Georgia Tech hadn’t equipped the officers with stun guns. The University of Chicago’s department -- like most campus police forces -- also doesn’t use Tasers.

Georgia Tech did not provide a comment in time for publication.

While police aren’t always perfect in handling situations, they have improved in identifying when someone might be experiencing a mental health problem versus a drug or alcohol overdose, said Sue Riseling, IACLEA executive director.

Ten years ago, officers wouldn’t know how to react to a person with autism, for instance, but now they learn to work in hushed ways with a student on the spectrum, Riseling said. Instead of screaming commands, an officer might sit down with the student and talk softly.

This is standard practice with any student who is having an unstable moment -- removing stimuli, such as other loud people in the area, and using direct, respectful verbal commands.

“University police departments are very open to learning, and officers are usually very engaged in what’s new and what’s the best way to do things,” Riseling said.

Crisis intervention training -- the Memphis model -- emerged in the late 1980s but didn’t “start running through the country’s veins” until a few years back, said James.

IACLEA stresses in its training partnering with campus counseling centers and other administrators, Bronson said. He recalled an incident about five years ago when he was employed as an officer at McDaniel College, a private institution in Maryland.

A student was publicly shrieking profanities and threats. When Bronson approached him using the established techniques, he was able to quiet the student and then call a counselor with whom he was on good terms to handle the situation. Working with counseling centers closely, particularly on issues of sexual assault, can help establish this relationship, Bronson said.

But counseling centers nationwide are overburdened, and more students are relying on their services, research shows.

Police should be part of the team of people who can help students who have experienced a mental health crisis, said Lisa Adams, director of counseling at the University of West Georgia and the president of the American College Counseling Association.

She said she did not agree with police knowing the students by name, but being in the loop and understanding their backgrounds in an emergency.

“Counselors are trying to underreact, to be calm, to create an environment that even when the client world’s is spinning out of control, that there is a peaceful place,” Adams said. “Police officers are trying to react quickly to de-escalate. There is a disconnect in how we approach situations, but there are cases we overlap very well.”

James, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune wrote that police should not be the safety net in a mental health crisis, but that politicians and other decision makers have poured money not into mental health treatment but into paying for better police training.

In an interview, she described how even an officer’s presence can unnerve a student, and so putting that student at ease could prove more difficult.

“Mental health illness should be addressed with the same forthright courage we now afford cancer,” James wrote. “In a better world, we would not talk about mental health only after crises. Until then, the harsh reality is that the system worked as designed.”

An emerging trend is a trained crisis officer accompanying a social worker to a scene, said Bronson. The two work in concert to help an individual who is experiencing a psychotic break -- but this can be pricey.

“There’s always room for people to look at what officers are doing, and scrutinize us, and there’s always room to improve,” he said.

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