How should mental health issues be handled by police?

One case study in Mass. sheds light on the difficult decisions facing police when dealing with mental health issues

By Paul Leighton
The Salem News

ROCKPORT, Mass. — On Oct. 10, at about 9:30 a.m., Christopher Whitmarsh walked out of a nursing home in Rockport, pulling an oxygen tank behind him.

Whitmarsh, 49, a Gloucester native, was homeless and depressed, and his oxygen was running low. A registered nurse at the Den-Mar Health & Rehabilitation Center called 911, saying Whitmarsh had left the facility against the wishes of the staff and told her he “didn’t care if he died.”

A Rockport police officer quickly found Whitmarsh walking toward town, and was soon joined by another officer. Despite a plea from the nurse at Den-Mar for police to take Whitmarsh to the hospital, the officers decided to let him go.

Later that day, at about 3 p.m., Whitmarsh was shot and killed by a police officer in Beverly after Whitmarsh repeatedly rammed his SUV into two police cruisers and a car in which his wife was a passenger.

Investigations by the Essex District Attorney’s Office and the Beverly Police Department concluded the shooting was justified because Officer April Clarizia reasonably believed that lives were in danger.

But the details of Whitmarsh’s earlier encounter with police in Rockport raise questions about whether he should have ever made it to Beverly that day, and shed light on the difficult decisions facing police when dealing with mental health issues.

Under state law, police officers have the authority to restrain a person if they believe that failure to hospitalize would create a “likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental illness.” A physician would then examine the person to determine whether he should be hospitalized for a three-day period.

Rockport Police Chief John Horvath said his two officers, Colleen Daniels and Michael Anderson, saw “no overriding red flag” indicating Whitmarsh was a danger to himself or anyone else.

“Had that been the case, they would’ve addressed it appropriately,” Horvath said. “They absolutely did the right thing.”

The officers came to their conclusion despite statements from the registered nurse that she was concerned for Whitmarsh’s safety.

According to the police report filed by Anderson, the nurse told him she wanted Whitmarsh to be “section 12’d,” a reference to the section of state law that allows for the involuntary hospitalization of a person who is considered likely to create “serious harm” due to mental illness.

While Daniels waited with Whitmarsh, Anderson drove to the nearby nursing home to speak with the nurse in person. The nurse told Anderson that Whitmarsh told her he didn’t care if he died and didn’t care if his oxygen tank ran out. According to Anderson, the nurse called Whitmarsh’s doctor and left a message.

“Her main concern was that he was homeless and had nowhere to go and she was worried he may run out of oxygen,” Anderson wrote.

In response, Anderson told the nurse Whitmarsh did not make any comments to him or Daniels about harming himself “or anyone else.” Anderson told the nurse police called a taxi for Whitmarsh so he could get to his car in Beverly to retrieve his other oxygen tank.

“She was satisfied with the outcome and I cleared from Den-Mar,” Anderson wrote.

In her report, Daniels said Whitmarsh told her he wanted to leave Den-Mar and “didn’t care what they said,” but that he didn’t want to die.

“Mr. Whitmarsh denied any suicidal thoughts or comments to myself and Officer Anderson and appeared to have a normal disposition,” Daniels wrote. “In my opinion, he was unsatisfied with his care and treatment at the Den-Mar Nursing Home and just wanted to leave.”

Daniels said she offered to call an ambulance or to bring Whitmarsh back to Den-Mar, but he refused. She stayed with Whitmarsh until a taxi arrived, then assisted him and his oxygen tank into the cab.

“I wished him the best and he left the area,” she wrote.

Decisions such as the one that confronted Daniels and Anderson are “excruciatingly hard,” according to June Binney, the criminal justice program director for the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Binney said all new police recruits in Massachusetts now receive 21/2 days of training on how to interact with people with mental illness. By June 2016, all municipal police departments in the state will have undergone a three-hour training program, she said. Some police departments, including Danvers, have formed partnerships with crisis workers to help officers respond to emergencies.

Horvath, the Rockport police chief, said his department, including Daniels and Anderson, has received training in mental illness and suicide prevention, most recently in June.

Binney said she could not comment specifically on Rockport police’s handling of Whitmarsh. But she said police need continued training on how to deal with mental health emergencies.

“I wish these things were more black and white. They’re very complex,” she said. “The best we can do is to support police through education and hope that creates some thoughtful consideration about the issues and some knowledge about how to best respond to people experiencing psychiatric crisis.”

Copyright 2016 The Salem News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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