Addressing incidents involving people with mental illness

Question:

“I've been following your candidacy for a while now. You do stand out from the rest of the District 6 candidates. I had an experience today which I wanted to both relay to you and get your opinion on as a candidate for City Council. I was walking down 1st Avenue this morning with my wife and mother-in-law who is visiting from out of town. Shortly after dropping my kids off at daycare, around 1st and Stewart we passed a man who got extremely offended by us. I have no idea what particular offense he took, but he very aggressively demanded an apology from all of us and started shouting about how this was America. I work downtown, so this kind of occurrence isn't all that uncommon, so we just tried to move down the sidewalk as quickly as possible, but he took even greater offense to this and started chasing us and eventually cornered us in a coffee shop.

Luckily we were able to get some assistance from the other occupants and a security guard, but the man continued being aggressive. At this point I dialed 911. I think the guy caught on that the cops would be showing up soon and took off. The operator asked if I wanted to file a report with the officers, which I declined. I mostly wanted the police to check up on the guy because he clearly had a mental illness and was probably going to threaten and potentially harm someone else. I have experienced and seen this type of behavior quite frequently. I work near Westlake and a man just stabbed a couple individuals several weeks ago. Almost every day I see a person screaming or running through traffic or acting aggressive and unstable. These are clearly people in need of help, but they are also people that are potentially dangerous to themselves and others.

Do you feel that the police/city/legal system are able to do anything about this kind of incident? What would you do on the city council to help with this situation?”

Answer:

This issue is multifaceted, much like homelessness. It's upsetting to me that this happens more frequently in Seattle than any of us would like. Also, it seems that the opportunity for a potentially beneficial intervention got lost. You wanted to see if the man could get checked out or evaluated, but the 911 operator asked if you wanted to file a police report.

If police officers had been able to show up while the man was still present, then they would have had several courses of action available:

-Offer mental health referral information to the individual and/or family members

-Assist in accommodating a voluntary admission for the individual

-Take the person into custody and provide transportation to a mental health facility for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation

-Make an arrest

As with all situations involving a person in crisis, officers should use de-escalation techniques and communication skills to avoid escalating the situation.

Even though our law enforcement and legal system may not have been designed to serve people with mental illness, public safety is a paramount duty of our city. One City program that that is meant to try to address incidents such as this is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. LEAD is a pre-arrest diversion program that provides wrap-around services to people with less severe mental health issues. 

However, I am not certain that police response to incidents such as yours is as timely and appropriate as we would like it to be.

I believe we need teams of mental health and behavioral outreach workers and police community service officers on the streets of downtown Seattle and in neighborhoods. These outreach workers and officers would develop relationships with local businesses and people who are homeless and/or have substance abuse or mental issues. They would know when and how to provide intervention services to help people get the services they need. They would be on call and available to respond rapidly to incidents such as the one that you and your family experience. They might be better able to determine which of the above-mentioned courses of action would be most appropriate for the person in crisis.

As a City Council member, I would commit to obtaining funding for more community crisis mental health personnel to be part of teams with police community service officers and downtown Metropolitan Improvement District ambassadors. It is important that these teams complement and coordinate with the Downtown Emergency Service Center's Crisis Response Center and Crisis Respite Program. Earlier this year the Washington State Legislature allocated more funding for training of mental health workers at state colleges and universities. The City should recruit graduates from these training programs. Or the City could provide funding to organizations such as the Downtown Seattle Association to hire such mental health outreach workers.

Also, I have a friend who works as an emergency room physician at Harborview Medical Center. I think he frequently deals with the in-take of people in crisis situations similar to the man in your incident. I would like to talk with him and learn about other ways in which the City can better respond to and prevent such incidents.


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  • Ed Pottharst
    published this page in Blog 2019-08-03 19:33:50 -0700