Courtesy of Maria Wilsey

How lack of police training can be deadly for the mentally ill

Fifty percent of Americans killed by the police every year are mentally ill; how do we change that?

Check out other stories in our ongoing series "How America Does Justice."

In the mornings, Keith Vidal-Wilsey would ask his mom if she wanted a cup of hot chocolate. Every night, he would tell her he loved her. He liked banging out hard rock riffs on his drum kit, and enjoyed when it snowed. He was also schizophrenic.

On one occasion, Keith tried to hurt himself. He tried to drink bleach and then wrapped a vacuum cord around his neck. With the help of local police, his mother, Mary Wilsey, got her son to the hospital for treatment. And she wanted to do the same earlier this year.

Mary Wilsey keeps her son Keith's door locked now, and visits his room when she wants to feel close to him. But the memory of her son, shot and killed by the police earlier this year, haunts every corner of the house.
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On Jan. 5, Keith had picked up a small screwdriver and was scaring her. She asked her husband to call 911. Two officers arrived, she said, and started calmly speaking with the 18-year-old. Then, she said a third officer from another police force showed up and escalated the situation, which quickly spiraled out of control. Less than a minute later, Keith had been tased and was struggling with the first two officers to arrive.

“Then, I heard the gun go off and saw my son start bleeding,” she said.

The third officer, Bryon Vassey of the Southport Police Department, had shot her son. Keith died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Vassey was indicted for voluntary manslaughter. His attorney said his client had to make a split-second decision and was protecting the lives of the other officers.

“When a child gets killed, you not only grieve for their loss, but you also grieve for everything that should have happened,” said Wilsey, explaining through tears that she’ll never see her son graduate, or get married. “What ended up happening is my son ended up dead because this individual was not trained to handle a mentally ill person.”

Police become providers

According to experts, conventional police training can actually inflame encounters with the mentally ill.

In March, police confronted a homeless man named James Boyd, who was illegally camping in the New Mexico foothills. A helmet camera video released by the police department showed Boyd picking up his belongings when an officer hit him with a flash-bang device, which was followed by screams of “Get on the ground.” Then, Boyd pulled out a knife, and the police fired multiple rounds at him. He was pronounced dead the next day.

Barking orders at a person with serious mental illness doesn't work.

Attila Denes

Douglas County Police Captain

“Traditional law enforcement tactics are rooted in logic, in reasoning – and in issuing commands for someone to comply so that we can make the situation safe right now by taking a person into custody,” said Douglas County Police Capt. Attila Denes, who has spent much of his career in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado trying to improve police interaction with the mentally ill. “But barking orders at a person with serious mental illness doesn't work.” 

And encounters between the police and the people with mental illness have been rising. In the last few decades, mental health hospitals have shuttered and services have been slashed, leaving more of the mentally ill without support and places for treatment. Prisons are now home to 10 times more mentally ill Americans than state psychiatric hospitals. And at least half of the people shot and killed by police in the U.S. every year have mental health problems, according to a 2013 report by the National Sheriffs’ Association.

A different approach

Whoa whoa whoa whoa! What the f**k are you doing!?

Relax, relax, relax.

I am relaxed! You relax! Who the f**k are you?

Are you OK? 

Role-playing is a key part of crisis intervention team training or CIT, in which officers are taught how to better identify and interact with the mentally ill. At this 40-hour training in Colorado, an actor plays a person with mental health problems, and the police officers take what they’ve learned in class – how to pick up on the signals, how to react – and try to implement them in the heat of the moment. 

At this weeklong CIT training, officers taking turns trying out their new skills with an actor.
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“Oh, they’re very realistic,” said Mike Hanifan, an officer in the training. “During one of the scenarios you can actually feel the sweat dripping down inside your shirt, because you put yourself in that situation.”

Half of the state’s police officers are now trained in the approach, and it seems to be working. Colorado deploys fewer SWAT teams and saves money by diverting the mentally ill from prisons, according to 10 years of data, collected in cooperation with Harvard Medical School, which hasn't yet been published. Nationwide, CIT officers are injured 80 percent less than untrained officers in interactions with the mentally ill.

Officer Chad Walker said the training has clearly helped him in real-life situations, like when he got a call about a 10-year-old with autism, who had a knife.

“He looked at us and started walking toward us with the knife in his hands,” Walker recounted. “We knew this person by name, called him by his first name, asked him how he was feeling. And he dropped the knife, and came to us and started listening to us.”

But despite this proven track record, only 10 percent of the nation’s 25,000 police departments require crisis intervention training. In North Carolina, where Keith was killed, only one in five officers receive the training. 

Keith’s Law

Burgaw, N.C. Chief of Police Montrina Sutton said her agency couldn't afford CIT training, but she started a simple registry program instead.
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“That’s the kind of training I would like for all my officers to have – at some point,” said Montrina Sutton, the chief of police in Burgaw, N.C., a small town a few dozen miles away from where Keith was shot. “But because of my small agency and I have a small budget, it makes it really hard.”

Sutton said she’s noticed that more veterans are returning to town with mental health issues, and that the officers have to deal with that “the best way we know how.”

But she’s deeply concerned about the lack of formal training. “That’s just like if I am not able to send an officer to the range to learn how to use his weapon,” she said. “And if he gets into a situation where he needs to use it, but he didn’t know how because he’s not trained.”

After Keith’s death, in lieu of CIT, Sutton’s department started a program called Special Awareness Verification Enrollment, or S.A.V.E. Residents can register with the police any household member with a mental illness, and an officer who is dispatched to that home then receives that background information before he or she arrives on scene. 

Mary Wilsey and her late son Keith.
Courtesy of Mary Wilsey

Since her son’s death, Mary Wilsey has become a fierce advocate of CIT.

“What happened in my home that day, I felt there was people that were not qualified to handle a mentally ill person,” she said. “And if you're not qualified, what the heck are you doing in my home? Get out. You should not be here.”

She submitted a proposal for a bill to her state representative called Keith’s Law, which would make CIT mandatory for all officers in North Carolina. She called it “common sense.”

“Train them so they can handle the population that they deal with every day,” she said. “My goal is to prevent another family from going through a terrible tragedy that has ruined our lives.”

For Wilsey, she plans on lobbying for the bill for as long as it takes until it’s passed.

“And then, I’m going to I'm going to Virginia,” she said. “And I'm going to Maryland. And then, I'm going anywhere I can go and get anybody I can to listen to me.”

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