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Cops aren't shrinks; jails aren't hospitals

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2003


Alan Houseman is a statistic now.

When a police officer shot him last Saturday in Hyde Park, Houseman became the fourth mentally ill person in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties to die in a confrontation with police during the last year. Houseman, a schizophrenic, had struck an officer with her baton.

Last month in Clearwater, it was Peter Nadir. All his mother wanted was for police to calm him down. Instead, he died during a struggle with officers.

Last November, in Brandon, a would-be suicide, Dana Andrews, brandished knives during a confrontation with deputies, who shot him.

And last March, it was Terry Lappin of Largo. He, too,wanted to kill himself. He, too, showed a weapon, a .22-caliber handgun, to deputies who shot him.

Four despairing, tortured men, all dead at the hands of police. I'm not going to argue the police in these cases were reckless or careless. The mentally ill, often unpredictable and violent, represent a unique threat to the police.

Mental health advocates know this, and through their efforts, some officers throughout the bay area have been getting special training on how to deal with the mentally ill.

But the training isn't being done widely enough or fast enough: These four deaths ought to make police chiefs across the bay area sit up and take notice that they have an ugly trend on their hands and that half-measures won't do. Take the example of Tampa: Only 60 to 80 of its 1,000 officers have gone through the 40-hour course.

Every officer needs the training, because the police deal with the mentally ill every day.

Time was, we kept the mentally ill in asylums, locked away and treated God knows how.

We no longer do that. Mentally ill people live among the supposedly sane rest of us. They are treated in clinics and outpatient programs. But it's up to them to take care of themselves, to take their medicine, to stay off alcohol or other drugs, to see their therapists.

Families help, but families can only do so much. When a mentally ill person commits a crime or otherwise refuses to do what he's supposed to do to stay well -- namely, take his medicine -- and begins to act up, the psychiatrist isn't the one who gets called first. It's the police.

And the police do what they know to do.

They take their sick suspect to jail.

What's happened, says Col. David Parrish of the Hillsborough sheriff's department, is "we've made being mentally ill a crime."

This is a long way from the days when experts thought the wise thing was to empty the wards of mental institutions. Parrish oversees the Hillsborough county jail. He estimates that between 8 percent and 16 percent of the 4,000 inmates in the jail are mentally ill.

Parrish believes that the jail houses more mentally ill people than any other facility in the county and that this story could be duplicated county by county across the state.

"When everything else fails," he said, "the county jail is there to take care of the problem."

What I'm describing to you is a process that begins with the wrong people, the police, trying to resolve a psychiatric crisis that they're ill-equipped to resolve. So it ends in tragedy, with the deaths of men like Alan Houseman, Peter Nadir, Dana Andrews and Terry Lappin.

The police need the special training to reduce the possibility that more deaths will occur. No doubt about that. But a system that channels the mentally ill through the jails, and claims that this is better than taking care of at least the sickest of them in humane hospitals equipped for this purpose, is asking the rest of us to believe, well, a lie.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 226-3402.

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