Better ways to respond to persons in mental distress


By Steven Sellers Lapham

Special to WJW

Mr. Zipskey trots erratically down the sidewalk in his underwear, swinging a butcher knife overhead, while the 1944 hit song “Marizy Doats” plays absurdly through open windows in Rockaway, N.Y. Cops soon surround and subdue him without injury. Poor old fellow, he’s having a “nervous breakdown,” explains the narrator in the movie, “Radio Days.”

We can compare that fictionalized memory with real bodycam footage of Kevin Costlow, a 52-year-old white man, holding a stick he’d picked up from the side of the road when a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed him in northern Montgomery County, in February 2020. Minutes before, Mr. Costlow had been driving erratically along a suburban road before he crashed his car into an oncoming vehicle. When the officer arrived and got out of his car, Mr. Costlow began hitting him with the stick. On a citizen’s cell phone video, Mr. Costlow appears to be having a mental health crisis of some sort.

Once upon a time, I would not have questioned the need for a police officer to shoot Mr. Costlow. You don’t question the police. They are the trained professionals on the scene. You were not there. You give cops the benefit of the doubt.

These days, however, I’m not so quick to give my doubt away to anybody. Doubt has been on my mind at least since 2018, when a Montgomery County police officer accosted, followed and then shot and killed Robert L. White as he strolled through his own Silver Spring neighborhood. Mr. White was a Black man with an emotional disability.

My doubts have only deepened with time. In May of 2020, a county police officer shot and killed Finan Berhe within 100 seconds of arriving on the scene of a distress call in Silver Spring, a call for help that was initiated by Mr. Berhe himself, who had just lost his job due to the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. We see, in the video of that incident, no attempt at de-escalation by the officer. There are too many similar, fatal incidents in our county, state and nation.

When the preservation of human life is truly the mission of an institution, then professionals get trained in the many ways to restrain a person in mental distress without harming them. This is the main reason why we need mental health professionals — not police with guns — to be the first responders when dispatchers receive a related 911 call. In the real world of limited municipal budgets, the only way to make that happen is to shift funds from police to other professionals, such as crisis counselors and social workers. That shift in priorities is just beginning to happen, as our society moves away from the gross criminalization of mental illness and toward addressing root causes and basic human needs.

In this era, however, police will often be the first at the scene when a civilian is suffering a mental health crisis. Currently, police are trained to draw their weapon, shout and shoot. They practice this routine over and over, throughout their careers, so it happens automatically. Draw weapon. Shout. Shoot.

In places where professionals are charged with preserving human life as their core mission, things are done differently. “Even in state mental health hospitals that contain people with a history of violence, staff are generally able to manage patients with a minimum of violence,” writes professor of sociology Alex S. Vitale in “The End of Policing.” Vitale gives examples, from recent years, of three mentally disturbed men (armed with a sword, a knife and a machete, respectively) who were subdued on the street by London police without injury. The chapter is titled, “We called for help, and they killed my son.”

Who am I to question the police and their training? I’ve never been attacked by a person intending to do me harm, but I remember being trained at the YMCA pool on lifesaving techniques. In the 1970s, we were instructed on how to swim out to a person in distress, fend off their flailing arms, spin them around, place them in a lifesaving hold and swim back to shore together. That method resulted in double-drownings, and it was abandoned. Today, lifeguards practice getting close enough to the distressed swimmer to throw a float at them. The swimmer hugs the float and saves himself.

Professional training can evolve, for lifeguards and for “officers of the peace.” It is not easy to restrain a person who is suffering mental distress if they are acting violently. Yet police in Canada, Norway and Japan seem to know how. In the United States, the switch to using best practices in de-escalation and safe restraint will never happen if citizens and civic leaders don’t doubt the wisdom of how these things are being done now — and demand change. Draw weapon. Shout. Shoot. Let’s modernize our methods and save the person in distress — and ourselves.

Steven Sellers Lapham, a member of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, lives in Gaithersburg.

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