City Desk

D.C. Police to Change Handling of Mental Illness Cases

D.C. police have decided to overhaul how it responds to mentally ill residents in crisis and police brass have requested training assistance from the Department of Mental Health, says DMH director Stephen T. Baron.

The decision follows two police-shooting deaths in recent months involving mentally ill victims. In November, police shot and killed David Kerstetter in his Logan Circle residence. In late January, an officer killed Osman Abdullahi inside an unlicensed group home near H Street NE.

The department plans to adopt what's called the "Crisis Intervention Team," or "CIT," model, which would train a core group of officers who would be assigned to respond to emergency situations involving the mentally ill, Baron says. Mental-health advocates and police watchdog groups have long pressed the department to adopt such a model.

The program was developed in the late '80s by the Memphis Police Department after one of their officers shot and killed a knife-wielding mentally ill man. The model has since been replicated by police departments across the country from Georgia to Houston to Seattle.

"We've begun planning training" for the officers, says Baron, who was approached by police brass three weeks ago. He says that it will take a couple years to get the program fully staffed. "We hope to start in the next few months with the first training class."

"They came to me," Baron says of the police department.

For years, the department resisted making the switch to a specialized unit. Former Chief Charles Ramsey and current Chief Cathy Lanier had rebuffed earlier lobbying efforts. When asked to explain the sudden change, Lanier said: "It's my decision. I think it was time."

Lanier says the move had nothing to do with the Kerstetter incident. The change came about, she insists, because the department has seen an increase in officers and resources. [This is news to FOP head Kristopher Baumann, who says the last time he checked, the department appeared to be behind in their staff goals. The police press office says they have approximately 4,000 officers.]

But Assistant Chief Peter Newsham, who runs the department's Internal Affairs Unit, says the shootings did prompt officials to think about the CIT model. "Obviously, it's a good idea," Newsham says. "There's been some concern recently about how we deal with people [who have] mental illness....The recent shootings have definitely drawn attention to the issue."

This "good idea" wasn't deemed so by the police department for more than a decade. Since the early '90s, the department had been lobbied by a group defense attorneys and mental-health advocates to adopt the CIT model. "There was a strong recommendation," recalls Dr. Robert Keisling of Pathways to Housing. "I remember going to the meetings in the early 1990s. It's been over 15 years of efforts."

Mary Ann Luby, a longtime outreach worker with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, also urged the police to change. "We have an ongoing struggle with the police and the way that they sometimes approach people that are mentally ill," Luby says. "We've talked about it for a very long time.... When Ramsey was here, we tried to introduce it to him. This is going back six or seven years ago."

The Office of Police Complaints had been lobbying for the CIT model since issuing a report in 2006. The agency's efforts had been ignored despite the mounting anecdotal evidence that the department had a problem.

"I am pleased that the MPD for whatever reason is moving forward with the Crisis Intervention Team," says Philip Eure, OPC's executive direstor. "The CIT concept has been tried and tested around the country. There is every reason to believe that D.C. will benefit from it just like Memphis and other cities around the country."

The CIT model may have come in handy on the morning of Nov. 6. Two officers responded to a call for an open door at Kerstetter's Logan Circle apartment. Once they arrived, they were briefed on Kerstetter's deteriorating mental-health condition by a neighbor. One of the officers, Frederick Friday, told Washington City Paper that he made several calls seeking assistance. He says that he tried calling Kerstetter's therapist.

Kerstetter told the officers to not enter his home. After waiting around outside, Friday and his partner Christian Glynn, decided to enter Kerstetter's condo. They found Kerstetter holding a knife and a struggle ensued, according to a police press release.

Friday shot Kerstetter multiple times. Kerstetter ended up in his bathroom. [A review of the pictures from the scene show nothing out of place, nothing that would indicate a struggle.]

Kerstetter died from his wounds. Friday says he acted in self-defense. The shooting is still under investigation.

When questioned about the case yesterday, Lanier defended the officers' actions. "They followed policy," she said.

Lanier added that they had to make a "split-second decision." But when asked about the 30 minutes the officers waited outside Kerstetter's apartment, she had added a new wrinkle to the boilerplate: "So sometimes they have to make a 30-minute decision."

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  • reader

    Officers had to make a quick decision, and were faced with a man holding a knife. They waited for half an hour for the situation to defuse, but eventually decided to go in -- perhaps because they feared for the man's own safety. By all means, the police should constantly review their procedures and training in an effort at improvement. But the Washington City Paper and its editors, sitting safe in their offices, should not be so self-righteous in critizing officers who responded to a dangerous situation.

  • Fair minded

    dear reader: the "situation" became "dangerous" only when the police entered the man's home, without a warrant and against the man's instuctions to leave, and then blasted him with eight bullets while he was cowering in the corner of his room. Perhaps, had the officers been properly trained, the City Paper wouldn't need to write about this tax-payer financed homicide.

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