Milwaukee police promise on mental health training unmet
A scared young man, paranoid and hearing voices, is shot and killed by Milwaukee police.
His heartbroken family wants to know why police weren’t better trained to know the symptoms of schizophrenia. The death sparks demands for improvements. Police promise that all officers will be well trained in mental illness.
That was 10 years ago. It still hasn’t happened.
Since that pledge for better training, at least seven people with well-documented and severe mental illness have died after confrontations with Milwaukee police, an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found.
In at least three of the cases, the officers who responded had not received the department’s special mental health training, though they were specifically dispatched to deal with a person in an obvious psychiatric crisis.
Today, one in five Milwaukee police officers has completed the 40 hours needed to be certified under the Crisis Intervention Team trainin gprogram, an approach considered the gold standard for policing.Only three of the roughly 40 dispatchers — those who decide which officers to send to particular calls — have been trained in CIT.
In the latest case, Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed man with a history of paranoid schizophrenia, was shot 14 times and killed April 30 in Red Arrow Park downtown.
Workers at the nearby Starbucks had called police to complain about Hamilton sleeping in the park. A pair of officers checked on Hamilton and found he was doing nothing wrong.
When police were called again, an officer — not trained in crisis intervention — awakened Hamilton and started to question him. The officer said he shot Hamilton after Hamilton took his baton and began to beat him. Witness accounts vary on this point.
Hamilton’s brother, Nate, said he spoke to Dontre earlier that day and he sounded paranoid and fearful. He said Dontre told him that he had not slept well in days. An officer trained to know the signs of mental illness might have handled him differently, Nate Hamilton said.
The shooting has sparked ongoing protests calling for reforms, including more mental health training for police. Although an outside investigation has been complete since Aug. 8, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has not said if the officer will be charged. Chisholm has said the decision will wait until a report from an outside expert on police use of force is received.
In each of the deaths reviewed by the Journal Sentinel, the district attorney’s office found officers were acting in the scope of their duties and were cleared of any wrongdoing.
“It is obvious that the police in this community have not taken mental health illness seriously,” Nate Hamilton said. He said he was “floored” to learn the everyone-trained promise of a decade ago had been broken.
Crisis Intervention Team training, sparked by a similar tragedy in Memphis in 1987, is now used in more than 200 cities in the United States and more than 20 countries worldwide.
In 2007, Houston police launched a mental health unit, pairing officers with mental health counselors to go out on calls. The program has proved so successful it was expanded to a division last year, and this year officials plan to add three more teams for a total of 13.
A contingent of Milwaukee officers went to Houston in 2012 and wrote up a proposal to develop a mental health unit, but none has been formed yet. Officials say they don’t have the resources to put every officer through the full CIT course.
“We’ve got so many officers, we’ve got a lot of demands placed on them,” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said recently. The 40-hour training for all of them “would take a lot of officers off the street for a long time.”
The state Legislature this year added $250,000 for mental health training for correctional and law enforcement officers over the next two years.
As the Journal Sentinel made inquiries for this story, Milwaukee police officials announced that the department will hold 16 hours of mental health training for the roughly 1,450 officers who have not had CIT training. There will also be a refresher class offered to those with CIT training.
The department plans to offer two more 40-hour CIT courses, one in October and another in February, said Carianne Yerkes, the inspector who oversees the department’s mental health training.
Each recruit will now receive the 40 hours of CIT training.
“We are hearing what the public is saying about the need for us to do more,” she said.
7 deaths since 2010
For this story, the Journal Sentinel reviewed all officer-involved deaths since 2007. Full information on deaths in 2005 and 2006 — the first years after the pledge of better training — was requested from the department but has not yet been provided.
The list of seven deaths does not include cases where an officer could not have known a person was in psychiatric crisis. This includes such cases as an armed robbery where it was later determined the person had been treated for mental illness in the past.
Training records and the names of the officers involved in the deaths were not available in every case. The Police Department has not yet responded to open records requests for that information.
All seven deaths have occurred since 2010. The victims ranged in age from 17 to 46. Three were white; four were African-American.
In one of the seven cases, the man had been hospitalized 37 times at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, medical examiner records show.
In at least three of the deaths, records showed there were officers on duty who had been through the department’s CIT training but for reasons unknown they were not dispatched:
One call was to transfer John Kriewaldt, a developmentally disabled man, from a group home where he was acting out to the Mental Health Complex. Kriewaldt, 30, banged his head against the plexiglass in the squad car as his hands were cuffed behind his back. He passed out after officers dragged him to the ground and he lapsed into a coma. Kriewaldt died of complications of pneumonia two days later.
Another was James Coleman, 45, who had been hospitalized more than 30 times for mental illness and was released from the county’s psychiatric hospital a few weeks earlier. Police shot and killed him April 24, 2013, after Coleman lunged at them with a knife.
Hamilton’s case was the third.
Steve Moffic, a Milwaukee psychiatrist who worked in Houston for several years, says he is disappointed but not surprised that Milwaukee has not done more to get its officers trained.
“Cities are like people,” he said. “They get into habits. It’s hard to change.”
More than 300 people filled the Italian Community Center in August 2004, looking for a better way to get people with severe mental illness into care. Some private hospitals had stopped accepting emergency psychiatric patients and people were waiting more than 24 hours to get in to see a doctor at the county’s psychiatric emergency room.
Nannette Hegerty, then Milwaukee’s police chief, promised to work with mental health providers to reduce the backlog.
A week later, Michael Blucher, an 18-year-old roofer who lived on Milwaukee’s south side, was shot by police. Blucher, described by his mother as “a little boy in a man’s body,” had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was around 12 and dropped out of school.
He had gotten into a fight with his friend’s 14-year-old sister, grabbed an ornamental Samurai sword off the wall and began swinging it around, striking her in the head.
The lone officer who responded did not have the special mental health training. He fired three shots at Blucher. Police records of the incident said the officer was so distraught at having killed the teenager that he fell to the ground sobbing and had to be carried away.
Three weeks later, officials brought Sam Cochran, a Memphis police administrator, to Milwaukee to talk about the success of Crisis Intervention Team training.
The newly formed Mental Health Task Force promised major reform.
The group — which included Hegerty, the police chief, and Mayor Tom Barrett — issued a report titled “A Critical Juncture.” It promised all officers would be trained in mental health to improve their crisis intervention skills.
As proof that important changes were already underway, the report noted:
“The Milwaukee Police Department agreed to train 1,800 officers in strategies for working with persons with mental illness.”
The training turned out to be one three-hour class.
From 8:15 to 11:15 a.m.
By contrast, Crisis Intervention Team training courses are 40 hours long. They include an overview of the symptoms of major mental illnesses, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Officers learn about psychiatric medications and their side effects. They are trained in suicide prevention techniques and ways to de-escalate intense situations. They learn about civil rights and commitment laws and what family members go through.
Studies on cities with CIT-trained police have shown officers are more confident and capable and do a better job of getting people into care without trauma.
The cost of CIT training is offset by a reduction in the number of wrongful death lawsuits, medical bills and jail costs, Cochran said at the time.
In 2006, the first full year that the 40-hour CIT course was offered, the department held four sessions. Enthusiasm waned. Now, there is just one a year with a maximum of 40 officers.
Flynn frequently exaggerates the number of his officers who are trained, claiming one-fourth have CIT certification. The actual number is 367, one in five, by the Police Department’s own accounting.
“It’s frustrating and very disappointing,” said Lyn Malofsky, a member of Milwaukee’s new Mental Health Board, who did much of the training in the early years.
State Rep. Sandy Pasch, (D-Shorewood) a psychiatric nurse who also conducted most of the early training, said Hegerty was more committed to training police officers than Flynn is.
“He gives a lot of lip service to the issue, but the training has dwindled,” she said.
Until there is more mental health training, deaths like Dontre Hamilton’s are bound to be repeated, Nate Hamilton says.
Dontre Hamilton, 31, a roofer, was taken into the Mental Health Complex by police officers last year after he stabbed himself in the neck. He agreed to be treated for schizophrenia but family members say he had stopped taking his medication in the weeks before his death.
Hamilton told family he was too frightened to stay in the rooming house he shared with other people under the supervision of mental health counselors.
Hamilton walked several miles to the Residence Inn on N. Plankinton Ave. and paid for a room in cash but had told his brother he did not sleep well that night. He spent the next night roaming downtown streets in a daze. Shortly after noon, he called his brother and asked Nate to pick him up.
“He was running scared,” Nate Hamilton said.
The scenario echoed those of earlier deaths. In some cases, family members say they called police, expecting help in getting their relatives into the hospital, and assumed police were trained to know how to handle people in psychiatric crisis.
Richard Nowicki said he can’t shake the sounds of the police guns popping or the image of his son lying dead before him.
When the 87-year-old south side man called the police on the night of April 27, 2013, he was looking for help to calm down Chris Nowicki, his mentally ill son.
The officers said they had no choice but to shoot him: Chris Nowicki came at them with a kitchen knife in each hand.
“My doctor told me I need to clear this stuff from my mind,” Richard Nowicki said. “Well, you can’t stop thinking about something like that.”
‘Intolerable’ number of calls
Flynn, who declined to be interviewed for this story, used a news conference following Hamilton’s death to decry as “intolerable” the increasing numbers of calls his department gets for help with people in psychiatric crisis — now estimated at 26 a day.
“Police have become the social agency of first resort for the mentally ill and substance abusing,” Flynn said. “Where is the treatment for them? Apparently, it’s call 911.”
Flynn said all layers of government — not simply the police — have to provide help and care for those in psychiatric crisis.
“We have violently mentally ill people whose violence is a direct result of their untreated mental illness,” he said. “They are on the streets with no place for them to go and their families cannot control them.”
Last year, Milwaukee police received more than 9,600 calls involving people in mental health crisis. Since 2005, Milwaukee police have made more than 50,000 trips to the Mental Health Complex to deliver a person being held as dangerous on emergency detentions, Flynn said.
Milwaukee County’s mental health system has long been crippled by the huge numbers of patients coming through the emergency room door. While the numbers have dropped in the past few years, the ratio of emergency detentions remains one of the highest in the country, with patients returning again and again.
Kimberly Walker, chair of the new Milwaukee Mental Health Board, said last week it is “critical” to get police and mental health administrators to collaborate on reducing the number of patients who return. A new report commissioned by the county shows that 32.5% of patients are returning to the county’s psychiatric emergency room within nine months, a higher rate than last year.
The Houston model is not flawless. Police there shot and killed a man with mental illness two years ago. But the number of violent episodes has dropped as has the number of people with mental illness who have been forcibly detained. Houston, with more than twice the population of Milwaukee County, has only 28% as many emergency detentions.
Milwaukee officers say their job is to secure safety, not provide mental health care. They say they feel ill-equipped to deal with people in crisis and do not feel comfortable with doing anything more than handcuffing unruly citizens and taking the ones who are obviously ill to the county mental hospital.
“You can have all the training in the world and that isn’t going to solve the problem,” said one former Milwaukee police officer who shot and killed a suicidal man several years ago. The officer asked to remain anonymous because he now works for another department.
As the mental health system turns its back on patients, the burden falls to police, he said.
“You need mental health counselors out on the streets,” he said. “Good luck finding a psychologist who is willing to go out at two in the morning.”
Pilot project makes gains
The sort of cooperation that was envisioned in the 2004 report has not come to pass.
Neither Milwaukee police nor officials at the county’s mental health division have pressed for substantive collaboration, though a pilot project based on Houston’s model has shown tremendous improvement.
One Milwaukee police officer is paired with one county mental health counselor. The two call themselves the Crisis Assessment Response Team.
They operate out of a building leased by the county at N. 24th and W. Wells streets and are dispatched by Milwaukee police. The two are sent out on calls where the person in psychiatric crisis might be able to be treated without having to be taken to the Mental Health Complex. The goal is to avoid having people detained involuntarily, a costly and cumbersome process.
The collaboration has proved to be highly successful. In the first year of the program, the two responded to 249 calls and 40 — or 16% — resulted in an emergency detention, according to statistics provided by the county’s Behavioral Health Division.
Milwaukee police have been promising to add a second officer for more than a year.
Yerkes, the Milwaukee police inspector, said she would welcome a conversation about more coordination between police and mental health professionals.
But county mental health officials aren’t pushing for any expansion of the program.
“We have no plans for any proposals at this time,” said Tonya Simpson, community relations coordinator for Milwaukee County’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Yerkes said it “would be nice” to pair more police officers with mental health counselors.
“It makes sense,” she said.
So far, it has not been a priority.
“We haven’t researched that enough,” she said. “We’re 10 years behind a city like Houston.”
It took Houston police three years to develop a mental health unit. Ten years after Milwaukee police promised reform, they are still waiting.
Ashley Luthern of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
In 2004, officials pledged that all Milwaukee police officers would be trained in how to deal with people in psychiatric crisis. Since that time, at least seven people with well-documented and severe mental illness died after confrontations with Milwaukee police. Here is a look at those cases:
Lon E. Paul, 39, had been detained by police and taken to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex 37 times since 1989. He was shot and killed by police on Nov. 20, 2010, after he came after them with a 4-inch steak knife and attempts to stop him with a Taser gun failed.
Dionne A. Brown, 29, a homeless man with a history of depression and bipolar disorder, was found hiding under the insulation in his ex-wife’s attic on Dec. 20, 2010. When Brown, who was wanted in connection with a battery case, made a motion like he was lunging after them with a knife, police fired 27 bullets.
John Kriewaldt, 30, a developmentally disabled man, cried for his mother and banged his head on the plexiglass screen of the squad car as police tried to take him from a group home to the Mental Health Complex with his hands cuffed behind his back. Kriewaldt lapsed into a coma and died of pneumonia two days later. A CIT officer had been on duty the night of July 28, 2012, but was not dispatched. The medical examiner found that Kriewaldt’s underlying pneumonia may have caused him to panic that night.
James Coleman, 45, died April 24, 2013, after he was shot by police as he came after them with a 6-inch filet knife. Coleman was well known to police, having been brought to the Mental Health Complex more than a dozen times in recent years, including six weeks before the fatal shooting. Neither officer who responded to the call had CIT training.
Chris Nowicki, 46, was shot by police on April 27, 2013, when he came at them with two kitchen knives in his hands. Nowicki had been hospitalized many times for anxiety and depression. His father, Richard Nowicki, called police for help after Nowicki went after his sister with a knife. “I can’t shake that sight from my head,” he said of watching his son die.
Shawn M. Rieves, 17, was shot by police Nov. 13, 2013, at the Downtown Transit Center after an attempted carjacking. Police tried for several minutes to get Rieves to drop the gun he was holding, but he refused. Police Chief Edward Flynn said later that Rieves had a well-known history of mental illness.
Dontre Hamilton, 31, had been hospitalized for schizophrenia but was unstable and too paranoid to stay at the group home where he had been assigned by his caseworker. Hamilton was sleeping in Red Arrow Park on April 30, 2014, when he was awakened by a Milwaukee police officer. The officer said he shot Hamilton after Hamilton had reached for his baton and began to beat him. Witness accounts vary on this point. The officer who fired the shots did not have CIT training.