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Schenck incident prompts concerns— Crisis training for police supported

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SIDEBAR: Focus on mental health in the community

In recent years, area police officers have noticed a change in their work, as their calls more frequently involve people with mental health issues. Whether because of funding cuts to mental health agencies, the troubled economy or the closing of institutions that once provided care, the result is the same: Police are often the frontline in terms of addressing the problems of the mentally ill.

“We’re seeing more people in crisis,” Capt. Scott Anger, of the Xenia Police Department, said recently. “We’re seeing more with mental health problems, drug addictions and dementia.”

The increase in calls involving those who are mentally ill adds a new dimension to an already stressful job, according to Yellow Springs Police Chief Anthony Pettiford.

“When we send people out, they have to decide, do you have someone who is mentally ill, or is the person hopped up on drugs?” he said in a recent interview. “You have to make these judgments quickly.”

And adding to the difficulty is that police are trained to present themselves in a way that subdues most people, but may have the opposite effect on the mentally ill.

“Look at the uniform and think about why it looks the way it does,” said Michael Woody, a retired officer from Akron who is the president of CIT International, in an interview last week. “It’s designed to intimidate most people. But for the mentally ill person, the presence of the police officer in that uniform right away amps them up. It doesn’t calm them down.”

Woody is credited with bringing to Ohio Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, a 40-hour training sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, that provides training to help police deal more effectively with people struggling with mental illness. Since Woody brought the program to Akron in 2000, more than 3,400 law enforcement officers have been trained across the state. The program involves both education on mental illness and practice with role-playing that trains police to use both words and body language to establish empathy, understanding and communication in a way that de-escalates potentially explosive situations.

The issue of how local police interact with those with mental health issues came into focus after last summer’s shootout that ended with the death of villager Paul E. Schenck, who was known to have both mental health and alcohol addiction problems. At 10:48 p.m. on July 30 an initial 911 call from Schenck brought local police to his North High Street home. However, after a several-minutes-long encounter with local police, Schenck fired shots that sparked a distress call from the Yellow Springs officers, which ultimately brought 80 law enforcement officers and three SWAT teams to the scene. The shootout ended with Schenck’s death from a bullet from a Greene County Sheriff’s sharpshooter.

The incident sparked concerns among villagers for a variety of reasons, according to Linda Rudawski, of the Human Relations Commission, or HRC, including questions regarding how local police respond to calls that involve the mentally ill.

“We heard real concerns about the police and whether or not they had the CIT training,” Rudawski said. “There were questions about their initial approach” with Schenck.

Training for crisis

Those familiar with CIT training say it can help officers learn to defuse potentially violent situations.

“It’s absolutely helpful,” said retired Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote, who was one of the area law officers and mental health professionals who brought CIT to Greene County. “The training gets officers to think of different dynamics. Everyone who took it said very positive things.”

Rudawski, who took the CIT training as a Champaign County housing specialist who works with severely mentally ill people, agrees that the program seems effective.

“You could see the change in their approach,” she said of the police officers with whom she trained. “It’s an intense learning about mental illness, including how to engage and assess situations, how to use body language. It was good to see how much the officers learned. They talked to each other about it.”

Statistics also show that CIT makes a difference. In Memphis, where the training was first developed, CIT trained officers call in SWAT teams about 60 percent less often than those not trained, according to Woody, the CIT International president. And Kent State reserchers, analyzing records of the Akron police department before and after officers had CIT training, concluded that CIT-trained officers tend to make more referrals to hospitals and fewer arrests. Research also showed that the public developed greater trust with the police after the CIT training, and police consequently received more calls regarding mental-health related problems.

But CIT training doesn’t mean police will always be able to defuse tense situations, those involved emphasize.

“Sometimes you can use the de-escalation techniques and sometimes you don’t get the opportunity,” said Chris Pinkelman, TCN Behavioral Health Services assistant director of clinical services, who is also a Greene County CIT instructor. “CIT is not a fix-all, an end-all.”

Local shooting

Although both the BCI report and Chief Pettiford initially stated that both local officers who first interacted with Schenck had the CIT training, only one did. Joshua Knapp, the officer who made initial contact with Schenck on July 30, had not had the 40-hour CIT training, according to NAMI, which keeps records on those who have completed the program. However, Knapp had completed a condensed (16-hour) training sponsored by Fairborn police, where he previously worked.

According to the BCI report on the incident from the Ohio Attorney General’s office, after the 911 call was received from Schenck’s residence July 30, Officer Pat Roegner was the first to arrive on the scene, followed shortly by Officer Knapp and Officer-in-training Luciana Lieff. However, Officers Roegner, who had CIT training, and Lieff were gathering information from Schenck’s parents in their house on the same property while Officer Knapp made the initial contact with Schenck. While it was not known if Schenck was armed, his father had confirmed that guns previously confiscated had been returned to him.

According to the BCI report, while Officers Roegner and Lieff spoke with Schenck’s parents, Officer Knapp spoke with Schenck, who he could see through Schenck’s front door window, and who appeared “obviously distraught and highly emotional” after a domestic dispute with a family member. Because Schenck appeared bloody and seemed to be injured, Officer Knapp repeatedly asked him to open the door and Schenck refused, saying “he didn’t want to get hurt,” according to the report. Officer Knapp repeated his request that Schenck open his door and Schenck grew more belligerent, stating that he was not going to open “the (expletive) door.”

At some point, the report states that Officer Roegner “noticed the exchange between Officer Knapp and Paulie had escalated” and moved to assist Officer Knapp. At that point both officers asked Schenck, who appeared intoxicated, to open his door, but Schenck said he was going to kill himself. At that point, the officers attempted to enter the residence in order to prevent Schenck from harming himself, struggling with the latch and pushing in the screen. The officers tried to break down the door, at which point they heard the first shots fired from inside, along with Schenck yelling threats, according to the report. They quickly retreated to take cover behind cars in the driveway, then made a distress call that ultimately brought 80 officers and three SWAT vehicles to the scene. Over the next several hours Schenck fired about 191 shots, according to the BCI report, and the police responded with six. However, one of those shots, fired sometime after 1 a.m. from the gun of a Greene County Sheriff’s sharpshooter, killed Schenck.

Aside from the BCI report, the details of what happened during the initial interaction between Schenck and local officers are not known. According to Village Solicitor Chris Conard and Chief Pettiford, the officers involved in the Schenck incident are not available for interviews. Officer Knapp had been on the local force less than a year and it’s not clear if he had previous encounters with Schenck, although he would likely be aware of him as someone who in the past had a large number of guns removed from his home, according to interim Village Manager Kent Bristol. Chief Pettiford was out of town on the night of the shootout, and was debriefed on what happened when he returned. According to Pettiford, he left the investigation of the incident up to the BCI rather than doing an in-house investigation because the BCI could provide an objective report. He said he did not ask the officers who initially responded to Schenck to analyze their actions, including what caused the escalation of tension during the initial encounter, because such an analysis was unlikely to be helpful.

“I don’t think there’s any way to identify what made it escalate or not escalate,” Pettiford said recently. “Things escalate. Everything is different. How it escalated is hard to determine.”

Overall, according to the chief, “I think these guys handled it the best way they could.”

More training needed?

Capt. Anger, of Xenia, who has been instrumental in bringing CIT to the area, also emphasized that the training is not a cure-all for stressful incidents.

“In that situation, you can’t say the CIT training would have made any difference,” he said, referring to the Schenck incident. “This training won’t fix every situation.”

But regardless of whether or not CIT would have made a difference in the July 30 incident, Chief Pettiford said he is a strong advocate of providing training for his officers, and hopes to give all officers the CIT training as quickly as possible.

But it will take time to train all local officers, because the Greene County training is only offered once a year, and such a small department is only able to spare one person off at a time. Currently only Officers Roegner and Lieff have the CIT training.

“Any additional training we can give our officers will benefit us,” Pettiford said. “CIT training is an additional tool we can use to handle calls effectively.”

Asked if he had had the CIT training, Pettiford said he “took a course” in the past, but so long ago he can’t remember when or where. He said he hopes to update his training after all local officers have gone through the CIT training.

Rudawski said she is encouraged that Chief Pettiford, who has attended recent HRC meetings, is an advocate for CIT training. The group has recently sent a letter to Village Council encouraging more funding for the police to receive the training.

In the meantime, the HRC will launch a series of community events aimed at increasing awareness around mental health issues, and seeking community solutions (See sidebar on front page).

“Anything we can do to positively affect the community, we will do,” Rudawski said.

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