Policing meets mental health

Over a dozen years, Oak Park cops have learned to listen first

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

At age 18, Jeffrey Shapiro's behavior began to shift. By age 23, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

And, in 2002, when Shapiro, now 34, had stopped taking his medication, he had a hallucinatory relapse while living in his parent's Oak Park home. Concerned for his welfare, they called Family Services' (now Thrive Counseling Center) 24/7 crisis intervention line, and a team from Thrive, along with Oak Park police officers, were dispatched to the scene.

"At that point I was not really able to get off the couch. So, the police officers took the time to help me understand that going to the hospital was the best thing for me," says Shapiro, an active advocate with the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), and recovery specialist in Thrive's TLC program. "I didn't want to go at first, but they just dealt with me in the exact right way, and now over the years I have realized that being hospitalized really was the best thing."

A decade or so later, Shapiro, who is living with his schizophrenia, says he would not have gotten to the point of recovery that he is at now if it had not been for what happened then.

That Oak Park police officers have become more attuned to mental health issues facing individuals they come in contact with is not by accident.

OPPD's shift in focus came when Rick Tanksley was promoted to chief 12 years ago. Since then, 22 officers, including Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose, have undergone NAMI's 40 hour Crisis Intervention Team program and are now certified Crisis Intervention Specialists, Ambrose says.

The department's overall aim, says Ambrose, is for the full complement of the force to become CIT certified in the next five or six years. Currently, an abbreviated training on the topic is protocol for every officer, he says.

Kristen Keleher, Thrive's crisis coordinator, says her group answers 75 to 100 crisis calls from Oak Park and River Forest per month, ranging from mental health "wellness checks" to individuals experiencing a psychotic break.

The number is on the rise, says Keleher, because of the ongoing NAMI Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainings which OPPD officers continue to undergo.

"The officers are calling us more to accompany them to a scene because they are picking up on signs that otherwise, without the training they have received, would be too subtle for them to know," Keleher says.

Since its inception in 1988, NAMI's CIT programming has been a local initiative designed to improve the way law enforcement, and the community, respond to people experiencing mental health crises. Nationwide, the community model has been built on the development of strong partnerships between police departments, mental health provider agencies, and the individuals and families affected by mental illness, says Pat Doyle, NAMI Metro Suburban's education coordinator.

"An important piece of the training they receive is being able to recognize the early warning signs of mental illness, such as anxiety, panic disorder, OCD, depression, bi-polar and schizophrenia," Doyle says. "There is a lot of shame and embarrassment around these illnesses. The number one way to reduce stigma is by people sharing their stories. That was part of their training, where the police officers get to hear from people directly."

A new focus

"In working with Pat from NAMI, and working with Thrive, we have learned that 25 percent of the population has some type of mental illness," says Ambrose, the deputy chief. "That being said, it is important for our officers to be trained to respond to citizens who have a mental illness, and not only work with them, but also work with their family members. We're not just doing this because there are incidents throughout the country. Chief Tanksley recognized the need for this in Oak Park when he became chief, so we are ahead of the curve, and were one of the first departments in the state to send officers to get this training."

Officer Robert Primak, one of Oak Park's resident beat officers, says his biggest takeaway from the training has been incorporating the precepts of compassion, respect, "being there for them, and letting them trust you" when called in to these crises situations that often are not what they seem.

"The biggest thing for us is de-escalating the situation. During our training one of the NAMI presenters came in and told us how he was treated by a particular officer," Primak says. "They put a Burger King hat on his head.

When he was done with his crisis and had moved on, he told us that he remembered that, how he wasn't treated as an individual. They were making fun of him."

Likewise, Officer Raphael Murphy, another beat officer, says he now better comprehends the importance of taking a moment to assess a situation, rather than just reacting to it.

"Before, the previous methods of assessing a situation could involve just tackling somebody, holding him down and squeezing him in the back of an ambulance and sending him off to a hospital," says Murphy. "Whereas if you have the training, you can try to establish a way of communicating with that person and hopefully work through a process by which they can understand that you're there to help them and they can cooperate with you so they don't end up in circumstances where they're going to get hurt."

Ambrose says in situations involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, he would "rather show up and realize that we are not needed and leave, rather than have it wait until it turns into an issue in which we need several officers," so he encourages anyone in these circumstances who feels ill at ease to call 911.

Shapiro says he is thankful for what happened then, and appreciative of the ongoing NAMI training the police receive.

"It is important that the police have an open line of communications with the person [in crisis] not just the support system [because] It should be the person talking with the police, too," Shapiro says. "…even if it is five minutes, to say 'you know what, we are just looking out for you.' [Hearing that from the police] makes all the difference in the world."

Reader Comments

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Laila from High Point  

Posted: November 13th, 2013 12:48 PM

Telementalhealthcomparisons.com offers a directory of online mental health sites that can offer great assistance from the convenience of your home and for networks looking for telehealth companies.

nice piece  

Posted: October 24th, 2013 1:48 PM

Eric, Cook County Jail is overflowing with the mentally ill because the state closed many of the facilities that serviced them and cut funding used in their interests. Chicago is running understaffed districts and shifts nightly. Their hiring is severly behind their attrition. Sending the officers they do have to a weeklong course won't exactly help the way you think it will. NAMI training or not, officers get to know the "regulars" in their area, whatever their issues and stories are.

R. Ester  

Posted: October 24th, 2013 10:01 AM

I'd first like to commend the OP Police Department for "Caring" about assisting people to the point of becoming CIT certified. Thank You! Mr. Jeff, I am so very proud seeing how you have overcome another life's obstacle - knowing "the Best is Yet to Come" . I thank God for the Man, you have become...Lots of Love

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 24th, 2013 9:07 AM

Eric - couldn't agree with you more. Chief Tanksley is a Giant Star in the village.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 24th, 2013 8:57 AM

I recently saw a news piece on television describing how police and emergency care work together to reach heart attack patients as quickly as possible as survival is a matter of minutes. The same is true for those with schizophrenia. Too frequently schizophrenia diagnoses are missed in the early stages resulting in denial and resistance by the sufferer. I have no professional mental experience, but I have seen friends and family having careers, marriages, social connections, and depression destroyed before actions to make the disease manageable for the troubled victims. Schizophrenia does not have to destroy a person life but it has to be diagnosed and addressed as early as possible. We need to be as conscientious in treating mental disorders as we are with medical disorders. Congratulations to NAMI and the OP Police for their awareness and diligence.

Eric Davis from Oak Park  

Posted: October 24th, 2013 8:30 AM

Oak Parkers know what an incredible resource we have in Chief Tanksley. Once again, our challenge is to take this model of true community policing to the larger stage. What if City of Chicago police leadership saw what their peer neighbor was doing? Isn't one of the largest problems Sheriff Dart has these days the huge percentage of his jail population with mental illness? How many fewer would be in there if officers were NAMI-trained, resulting in the need for fewer confrontations and arrests?

OP Resident  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 7:24 PM

I don't know the other officer but over the years, I have seen Chief Tanksley and Officer Raphael Murphy in action, good and competent police officers. Thrive and Nami have done so much good for people. They deserve support and credit for their advocacy, too. I told my children about the sensitivity training police officers went though during the '60's to help them deal decently with the diverse population and racial changes happening in OP....we are very blessed in our police force here.

Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 6:20 PM

In light of recent stories highlighting the devastating results of ill-prepared police officers encountering persons with mental illness, it is wonderful to see the foresight, care and compassion in our own community. As the parent of a young adult with mental health challenges, I am a little less anxious should the need arise for police assistance in my family. Thank you. Also, gratitude to Mr. Shapiro and the other NAMI presenters for sharing their personal stories.

Former neighbor  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 3:39 PM

Glad to hear that Jeff is doing well.

Neighbor from Oak Park  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 3:09 PM

This really is excellent and makes me very proud of our Police Department. Very professional. Thank you.

Jill from Oak Park  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 1:23 PM

So proud to live in such a progressive town! And so grateful for brave people like Mr. Shapiro who speak out! The Chief of Police sets the stage for how his or her officers will go out and be equipped to handle such calls. Their attitude can result in a department which views mental illness as a "weakness" and w/ stigma or, in OPPD's case, can mean having officers who are well-informed and capable to handle such situations in the best, most humane way possible. Thank you all for sharing!!!

MattCordtwist from IslandDweller  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 10:17 AM

Have Much High Regards for Police Chief Tanksley who obtained Masters Degree in Social Work before even getting to Law Enforcement. How many police chiefs can say that?

Phil from Oak Park  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 8:50 AM

Excellent to hear our officers are well trained for this so-common part of their citizen interactions. Skilled and informed prevention and de-escalation is so important for managing these crises. And major kudos to THRIVE and our local NAMI affiliate for continuing to work so hard on behalf of so many of our friends and family members affected by mental illness!

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