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Mayor, IMPD chief, clergy want cops to stop going on mental health calls. Why isn't it happening?

Indy looking to Colorado, Oregon for changes
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Posted at 1:01 PM, Jun 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-07 11:26:58-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The city’s Black clergy have called on Indianapolis to stop dispatching police officers when people are experiencing a mental health crisis.

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief Randal Taylor said he agrees that officers are not always needed for calls related to addiction or mental illness.

Even Mayor Joe Hogsett has publicly supported the idea that the city should adopt a so-called clinician-led response to mental health calls, which include those relating to homelessness, intoxication or disorientation.

Calls for change grew louder after the death of Herman Whitfield III on April 26.

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Herman Whitfield III

According to an IMPD news release, family members told police the nationally recognized pianist and composer was suffering mental distress when officers handcuffed and Tasered him at his northeast-side home. He died later at a hospital.

“Officers should not be dispatched to situations where mental health professionals are best equipped to respond,” Faith In Indiana organizer Josh Riddick said in an emailed statement.

Riddick called on the mayor to “fast-track plans and scale-up clinician-led mobile crisis teams so trained professionals can respond to mental health calls, each and every time.”

With community leaders and city officials in agreement, why is Indianapolis still sending police officers to mental distress-related calls for help?

The answer, like so many things related to public safety in this city, is this is a complicated change.

“It is building a strong foundation, that's the key right now,” said Lauren Rodriguez, director of the Office of Public Health and Safety. “We understand what kind of impact it can have and will have on our community, so we want to make sure that the foundation is strong and sturdy.”

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Office of Public Health and Safety Director Lauren Rodriguez

Rodriguez said adopting this new model is not simple and not easy. The changes will require training dispatchers and developing guidelines for how these teams get called and respond to situations, she said.

“It's not just about getting a van and employees,” Rodriguez said. “We need to make sure that we get a van that's equipped with the right equipment, the right tools that they’re going to need.”

Mobile Crisis Assistance Teams

Indianapolis in recent years has made strides in how police respond to people with mental health and addiction issues.

Since August 2017, the Mobile Crisis Assistance Team has seen great success in getting treatment for those with addiction or mental health issues instead of sending them to jail, Mayor Joe Hogsett said in a speech last month.

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“This partnership has led to a 96% non-arrest rate, and that’s before we started expanding the program, scaling it up to cover all of Indianapolis,” Hogsett told clergy and community leaders at the Faith In Indiana “Fund our Futures” summit on March 8. “That's progress.”

MCAT pairs a crisis clinician with a specially trained IMPD officer. There are nine such teams in the city, operating from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

But MCAT isn’t good enough, critics say. Faith In Indiana is pushing hard for changes. A member of the group told WRTV they want mobile crisis teams that include a clinician and a “peer support specialist.”

“The peer support specialist is a community member that might have experience with addiction or mental health issues,” said Benjamin Tapper of Faith In Indiana. “They can really relate to the family members, or to the person experiencing their crisis.”

No cops; less conflict

Officials studying and planning a new program are looking to Colorado and Oregon as they consider what a clinician-led response could mean in Indianapolis.

In Eugene and Springfield Oregon, a non-profit clinic runs Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) teams, which send a medic and a crisis intervention worker to non-criminal calls for help.

The program has been operating since 1989 with public funding and support of police and city leaders. CAHOOTS recently received a Congressional grant to buy two new vans.

“By sending the right resources I can make the assumption that there are going to be fewer times when officers are in situations that can turn violent,” Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner told KEZI- TV on April 1. “It actually de-conflicts, reducing the need for use of force.”

A similar program has been operating in Denver, Colorado, since 2020. Like the Oregon program, Denver's Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) sends a clinician and a medic to non-violent mental health calls.

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In Denver, Colo., the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) sends a clinician and a medic to non-violent mental health calls in an unmarked van.

Benjamin Dunning, an organizer for the Denver group Homeless Out Loud who was involved in creating the STAR program, said it has eased the strain on the police department and public.

“The basic premise of not sending armed police officers to calls that could be handled better with people with different skills is awesome and we're already seeing the results of that,” Dunning told Denver 7 (KMGH-TV) in February 2021, about eight months after the program launched.

The program started with a single van with a a behavioral health clinician and an emergency medical technician. After 18 months, Rocky Mountain PBS reported that STAR is now growing to six vans staffed by 14 clinicians and medics.

The death of Herman Whitfield III

There is renewed and heightened attention on how police handle people with mental illness since the death of Whitfield, 39.

Family told police Whitfield was “having a psychosis” when IMPD officers were called to his northeast-side home early on the morning of April 26, the department said in a news release.

Officers arrived to find the 6-foot, 2-inch tall Whitfield nude, sweating and bleeding from the mouth, police said. Officers spent more than 10 minutes talking and using deescalation tactics, IMPD said.

Police said Whitfield made a sudden move toward an officer.

Officers used a Taser on Whitfield before securing him in a double pair of handcuffs, IMPD said. Whitfield was in police custody when he died at a hospital.

Whitfield, a Black man, is being mourned by the Indianapolis arts community and others who knew him for his talent as a composer and pianist.

At age 20, Whitfield's work premiered with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2003. He also worked with the The Arts Council of Indianapolis and was well-regarded by many musicians and artists here and across the world.

Unanswered questions

We still don’t know why Whitfield died after his encounter with IMPD officers.

The coroner has not yet released a cause of death. The city has not released body camera footage, 911 calls or any other records related to the incident that led to the 39-year-old’s death.

Faith In Indiana says the city can’t afford to wait for the investigation. In a news release May 9, the group called on Hogsett’s administration to fire the officers, release the body camera footage and “take swift action to scale up clinician-led mobile crisis teams across the city.”

“What happened with Mr. Whitfield is tragic,” said Rodriguez, director of OPHS. “But unfortunately, you know, we knew that we needed to invest in mental health before that even occurred.”

Faith In Indiana the group asking for quick change, is also the leading voice helping the city shape and build its new program, Rodriguez and Tapper said.

Rodriguez and Tapper said they want to build a program that fits Indianapolis. The new program won't send officers on these calls, but it's entirely clear yet who will go instead.

“I don't necessarily think it's the police department's job necessarily to handle all the mental health issues, but unfortunately there's no one really stepping up,” IMPD Chief Taylor said. “Sometimes we (officers) have to step in just because there is no one else doing that.”

How soon?

Mayor Hogsett has vowed to launch a new program here by next year. Rodriguez insists the city will meet that deadline.
Police officials agree that the change makes sense. They see in the new program a way to better help people struggling with addiction or mental illness and give officers time to focus on other problems.

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IMPD Assistant Chief Chris Bailey

“The more we can do to support our officers and support the community and provide the appropriate resources to people in mental health crisis, the better it is for everybody including our police officers,” IMPD Assistant Chief Chris Bailey said.

“We can use our officers to be more focused on violent crime and more focused on community policing and being visible in the communities to reduce violent crime.”

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc

More | Man who died in police custody was talented Indianapolis musician | IMPD's MCAT program offers emergency mental health resources | IMPD names officers involved in the in-custody death of gifted pianist