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'Our job is to protect people from themselves': State's top cop talks tackling mental health crisis

Straight talk from ISP Superintendent Doug Carter
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Posted at 2:41 PM, Jun 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-10 18:00:15-04

INDIANAPOLIS — As the state's top law enforcement officer, Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter sees the impact of a mental health crisis in our state in the ways officers have increasingly been asked to do things they aren't trained to handle.

The State Police force Carter joined in 1984 is different than the force he commands today. Chief among the new challenges is the way a crisis of addiction and mental illness has fallen squarely on law enforcement here and across the country.

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Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter.

"It's not fair to ask us if it's fair," Carter said in a recent interview in his office in Indianapolis. Carter met with WRTV to talk about how mental health and addiction is impacting police and public safety officials.

Carter knows the impact better than most, having seen the ripple effects of mental illness and addiction in the community and the jail. Before former Gov. Mike Pence appointed him superintendent in 2013, Carter served two terms as Hamilton County Sheriff from 2003 to 2010.

"Our job is to protect people from themselves, sometimes," he said. "And is it overwhelming? Is it maybe unreasonable? Yes, yes. But who else? If not us, then who?"

Here are six questions with the man who leads Indiana's more than 1,200 officers and some 400 civilian employees.

Question: What is going on with law enforcement and mental health right now?

Carter: "The mental health issue as associated to policing whether in America or here in Indiana is relatively simple: Law enforcement uses the local jails for a mental health facility. And that's not the right place for that to be, but it's the only place that we really have right now... You see the the complexities associated with the perception of someone being in mental distress are different depending on who you ask, right? Whether it be a judge, a prosecutor, a police officer, a person walking down the street, a family member or a friend, whoever it might be. But we're expected to be able to solve all those problems in the middle of the night. And the answer is we can't. We can't."

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Q: Indianapolis has a program called MCAT, the Mobile Crisis Assistance Team. What are your thoughts on that program?

Carter: "Hugely successful. I applaud all those involved in making that work. I think we get so hung up on on the magnitude of success as it equates to a metric that we lose sight of what it really does in real time. The analogy that I've always used is that the governor allowed me to spend almost $7 million on a helicopter. And within a matter of weeks, we located a little boy wandering aimlessly in the woods on a cold, dark, rainy, dreary night, all by himself. Was that $7 million worth it? Absolutely.

I use the analogy only to say that what the city of Indianapolis has done associated with that program has had a positive effect on somebody. Can we equate it to a reduction in crime? Of course not. Sometimes we lose sight of the totality of the victim experience... There are some really good people out there that try and do the right things for people that have experienced enormous trauma in their lives."

Taking law enforcement out of this will be fine until one of those volunteers, who's trying to do the right thing, takes a bullet like Breann Leath did.
Superintendent Carter

Q: The mayor has talked about launching what they're calling a clinician-led response, which would be a kind of a hybrid of the MCAT without police. Indianapolis now is talking about teams that include a clinician and a "peer-support specialist." What are your thoughts on taking police out of some of these mental health runs?

Carter: "People that think that's a good idea are those who don't understand the magnitude of what those runs are. ... It's our job and my job to worry about what happens in the middle of the night or during the daytime. Because 99% of people are good, but there's a very small percentage that aren't. If you haven't experienced interaction with those people, you don't understand. It's just that simple. You don't understand... The mental health situation is very, very real. The way that individual is acting, he or she believes they're right. That's scary. That's scary. And at 2 in the morning when somebody appears in their door ... is a very dangerous moment in time, because they don't think anything's wrong. So taking law enforcement out of this will be fine until one of those volunteers, who's trying to do the right thing, takes a bullet like Breann Leath did. (Note: IMPD Officer Leath was responding to a domestic violence call when a shot fired through a closed door struck and killed her on April 9, 2020).

These are very volatile situations. And we'll have to see over time how they work. You gotta give everybody credit for at least trying."

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An Indiana State Police vehicle is shown.

Q: Police are being asked to do so much more when it comes to dealing with people with drug abuse, addiction and a whole spectrum mental health problems. I know you train for this, but is it fair? Is it fair to ask police to do this kind of work?

Carter: "Well, it's not fair to ask us if it's fair. ... Our job is to protect people from themselves, sometimes. And is it overwhelming? Is it maybe unreasonable? Yes, yes. But who else? If not us, then who? Because again, we're willing to take that risk to our own personal safety to help somebody else. And what we've been tasked with in 2022 are things that I never dreamed possible as a young state trooper in 1984.

With all of the imbalances that we see in our human existence today. Gosh, where do you start? Where do you start? ... People care way more about how much you care than how much you know. I really wish people that sat in positions of influence would say that because they feel like they have to have a solution. And I think it's all a head fake... I don't think there's any amount of money that we as a government can throw at these many, many issues associated with human existence, with violence, with hate, discord, imbalance. I mean, those are things that keep me awake.

And then when a significant event occurs, like in Uvalde, Texas, it just shines on it, doesn't it? Somebody's got to be at fault. Somebody's got to be to blame. And then we're gonna throw money at this and we're gonna throw more laws at this. And I just don't see any value in any of it."

Q: Is there a way to help people who need help, and arrest people who need to be arrested? Should we be sending police officers to every single run when maybe somebody just needs some treatment or help that doesn't involve handcuffs?

Carter: "I think that's a bad rap that we've gotten over time. Putting somebody in jail is a last resort for us. Now I go back to the Norman Rockwell paintings... I'm looking at the ability that the police officer had to influence the outcome of a situation in a very kind, very respectful and very gentle way... You know, one of the biggest decisions that I made that was the most unpopular in nearly 10 years as a superintendent was requiring that we take window tint off our cars. I want people to see you... I don't want there to be this this mystery about who's inside that State Police car. Because there's a human being in that car. And I think you can translate that into a 2 in the morning, in the middle of nowhere or here in urban sprawl, where a police officer gets down on his knees and talks to somebody that's really struggling. Nobody knows the community better than they do; the people, the resources, the treatments, all those kinds of things."

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Q: I mean, it's almost like we're asking cops to be social workers, right?

Carter: "We are. We absolutely are. Untrained... We became police officers. We didn't want to become medics or firefighters, right? But now we're to the point that we have to be a little bit of everything. We have to be able to treat a trauma patient as if we were a medic, right? So you're right. It's without training. We're expected to be all things to all people sometimes. It's really, really difficult, but we'll try."

More | Mayor, IMPD chief, clergy want cops to stop going on mental health calls. Why isn't it happening?| IMPD's MCAT program offers emergency mental health resources |Man who died in police custody was talented Indianapolis musician

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