Police and mental health workers deal with violence

Violent situations with the mentally ill and those who suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) are difficult to navigate. Last week’s incident in West Duluth was a prime example. According to the police report filed by Public Information Officer Jim Hansen, the police were called to a group home when one of its residents became violent. The police tried to control the man with a taser. The man causing the disturbance tried to take the gun from one of the police officers, and the officer’s partner shot the man. Minneapolis police Sgt. Bill Palmer and two mental health workers in Duluth give some context to the incident. The Duluth Police Department did not respond to phone calls, but Sgt. Bill Palmer from the Minneapolis Police Department said that this kind of situation is not uncommon.

“The use of deadly force is spelled out in state law, and it doesn’t matter who you’re using it against,” Palmer said. “You still have to follow state guidelines. In Minneapolis we have shot and killed people who were experiencing a mental health emergency and we ran out of options."

Palmer said that the guidelines for using force with people experiencing a mental health crisis are essentially the same as with anyone else.

“We handle about 1,100 emotionally disturbed persons a year here, and probably between 10 and 15 percent of them we have to use physical force,” he said. “We try to de-escalate the situation.”

Employees at group homes also have to deal with mental health crises. Tommy Taylor is one of them.

At Taylor SLS Inc., an adult foster care company in Duluth, everyone is trained to respond to violent situations with their residents.

“It’s called therapeutic intervention,” Taylor said. “It’s about a half-day course. We practice on each other.”

Graphic Credit: David Cowardin

Danny Lee, who started Lee Foster Care (LFC) in Duluth with his wife 16 years ago, said his company also does a lot of training.

“They have to be trained in what they call restraining someone," Lee said. "We have some really good training in that. Usually they tell you to get all of the clients out of the house, so no one gets hurt, and remove yourself, and call the police.”

Lee had an incident last summer in which the police were called to one of his group homes to deal with a resident with a TBI. The police were informed about the man’s condition right away.

“So they handled it really well, actually," Lee said.  "Kind of talked him down and didn’t treat him real mean. So I think they, I don’t know what kind of training they had but they sure acted like they did. Once I told them that he had TBI they handled it really well.”

One of the most important things, Lee said, is that the police understand the situation.

“If the police don’t know the person, they’re acting on a call they get, you know, hopefully someone will explain to them that they have a mental illness," he said. "That’s where sometimes I think it’s not fair to the public. A lot of times it’s not explained to them. A lot of times they’re reacting to a call they get and they don’t know the person. Let’s just say they kind of are busting windows or hurting themselves, they gotta do what they can to stop them from hurting themselves or others.”

Taylor said he hasn’t dealt with much violence. He has, however, had to restrain residents twice. One involved a mentally retarded woman who bit herself and others to the point of bleeding. Another was with a 15-year-old boy in a van on the way back from the dentist.

“He started freaking out, screaming,” Taylor said. “He started banging his head against the pillars in between the windows in this old van. So he was injuring himself.”

When they arrived back at the group home, Taylor and his co-worker pried the van door open.

“I just pulled him out and we had to bring him to the ground and do a restraint on him on the ground in the dirt driveway," he said. "We have neighbors and it looks bad, and I guess some of the neighbors did walk by and the other staff walked up to them and said everything’s fine, this is a group home.”

The possibility of these types of violent situations arising is a reality of a deinstitutionalized society. Deinstitutionalization, a process which occurred largely between 1955 and 1994, refers to the removal of mentally ill people from state institutions and integrating them into society. A large number of these people now live in group homes, which are like adult foster care systems.

“It’s just such a better environment,” Taylor said. “It gives them a chance at living a semi-normal life, which I think is amazing.”

The problem of placing people who have violent tendencies is much more complicated.

“We don’t have any truly violent people,” Taylor said. “There are definitely people who are borderline like that. Take a paranoid schizophrenic. It just becomes a very hard call, very tough calls need to be made. Like, well this guy, he’s only gone off four times in his life, and you don’t want to condemn somebody for these two times that they’ve just gone off the deep end and every other day they’re just sweet, nice and tender.”

Of the adult foster care system, Taylor concluded, “I think it’s kind of a win-win-win. That’s my perspective. Basically my favorite part is that these guys don’t have to be cooped up in an institution. And if it’s better for them, then it’s good.”

Lee said that the work he does is rewarding.

“We love doing it. We try to teach our guys at least to accomplish as much as they can. Whether it’s tying their shoes or buttoning their shirt or fastening a seat belt, accomplishing something so they can feel good about themselves.”

The most important thing for Lee is getting rid of the stereotypes associated with mental illness.

“I think the biggest thing that needs to get across is that mental illness doesn’t mean you’re crazy.”

Do you think more needs to be done to help people with mental illness? How do you feel about this issue and how it is being dealt with? We’d love to hear your stories in the comment form below.

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