NEWS

Editorial: A New Breed of Cop, part 4 of 4

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Todd Miller wonders whether his brother had to die.

On Dec. 22, 2006, Tyee Miller was engaged in a standoff at his Bartonville home. The former sheriff's auxiliary member, 41, was depressed over a divorce and financial problems. After six hours at the scene, officers entered the kitchen and found Miller pointing a gun at them. They fired.

In an e-mail, Todd, a former policeman, asked, "If you have a guy who wants to commit suicide, why isn't a mental health worker on scene from the start? If you have a guy who wants to be killed by the police, what are you doing tricking him into coming outside and what are you doing chasing him into his house?"

Scott Sheets Sr. wonders whether his son had to die.

On April 29, he and other relatives were trying to keep Scott Sheets Jr. from killing himself after the 23-year-old drove off with a knife. Family said he was depressed, had stopped taking his medication and had been drinking. At the scene south of Lacon, officials said the young man advanced toward police, who shot him.

"He was just saying to the police, 'If I come at you, will you shoot me?''' Scott Sheets Sr. told a reporter after watching his son be killed.

"It was a cry for help, and he didn't get help. ... There had to be other options when he didn't have a gun. If I'd known they were going to shoot him, I would have tackled him myself."

Neva Pitzer wonders whether her son had to die.

On May 24, she and her husband got a distressing call from son Brian, who was holed up in his Creve Coeur home with a shotgun. "He kept telling us he loved us."

The Pitzers raced to central Illinois from their Missouri home. Neva said Brian had agreed to surrender his gun to his father. Brian, 32, was having marital problems and had been prescribed pills for depression. At one point, Pitzer even asked the police negotiator to roll up the windows of his truck after it had begun raining -- a peculiar request from someone reportedly contemplating suicide, one that shows the irrationality at work in these types of situations.

"We thought the police were waiting for us," said his mother. Somewhere around Route 29 and the Manito Blacktop, authorities phoned the Pitzers to inform them their son had been shot. By that, Neva said, "we thought he got shot with a bean bag or rubber bullet."

It's defensible for these families to grieve their loved ones and to question police, just as it's defensible for local police departments to support their officers' actions. Investigations in all three deaths have cleared police of wrongdoing and ruled that they followed protocol. We accept the latter conclusion.

What's indefensible -- given these and other fatal encounters over the past decade -- is to accept the status quo without first exploring other, perhaps better options. Perhaps protocol needs to change.

Over the past three days, this page has outlined a different model for handling the often tricky, sometimes risky situations that arise when police respond to a disturbed person. It's one Memphis police created and dozens of other departments have adopted, called the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). It is not a panacea, nor a guarantee against injury or death. But it is a better, more modern standard, the benefits of which are clear.

From Aug. 28 to 30, the Memphis Police Department is hosting a conference where criminal justice workers, elected officials, psychiatric professionals and advocates for the mentally ill will join law enforcement in the city where CIT began to talk about what has worked for them. Central Illinois needs a seat at that table.

We believe Marshall County Sheriff Rob Russell when he says, "Anything that improves training. I'd be open to it." We trust Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy when he says, "I would rather talk for 50 hours than shoot somebody." We respect that Peoria Police Chief Steven Settingsgaard has doubts about CIT, though he agrees that "every department needs someone trained to respond."

Local officials should go to Memphis, talk to the 1,000 people in attendance and consider whether CIT is appropriate here, either for individual departments or as a regional unit. The Peoria area already has the infrastructure other communities with CIT are trying to build: a strong chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; politicians who are mental health advocates; several hospitals and a wealth of psychiatric experts; and, most of all, many high-caliber policemen and women.

Major Sam Cochran says that two decades ago in Memphis, "We thought we were doing what we needed to do" in training officers to respond to the mentally ill. They were wrong, he says now.

In many ways, police are stuck on the receiving end of larger medical and governmental deficiencies that allow some troubled individuals to slip through society's cracks. Thankfully, deaths at the hands of police remain relatively rare, even if these recent tragedies have raised some alarms. No one doubts the difficulty of the job.

Still, they have a responsibility. Situations like these get a lot of attention. If families avoid calling the police for fear harm will befall their loved ones, the system will be broken. No one should be so confident, or stubborn, as to think central Illinois has nothing to learn or to gain from the Crisis Intervention Team program and its new breed of cop.

Peoria Journal Star