New SC Law Requires All Officers to Learn to Spot Mental Illness

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Every police officer in South Carolina must undergo training to recognize mental illness and de-escalate confrontations with people who are manic — not malicious — under a new law.

Law enforcement officers increasingly encounter people with mental health issues and they need to be able to “see it for what it is,” State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said.

“Someone may be acting in a strange way, and officers need to understand it’s not just out of meanness but someone has an issue going on and they need help — not necessarily jail, but a hospital,” said Keel, who supported the legislation and recommended that it apply to all types of officers.

The now-mandatory course for all of the state’s roughly 16,000 officers — including corrections officers — will be part of the 40 hours of additional training they need every three years to be re-certified for their jobs. The training is already standard for the 59 agencies in South Carolina that are either state or nationally accredited, Keel said. But there are nearly 300 law enforcement agencies statewide.

For the past decade, the National Alliance on Mental Health has received $170,000 annually from the state to provide voluntary training. Some of the larger agencies pay for their officers to undergo the 40-hour course, which includes roll-playing. But small police forces have trouble scheduling even the two- or four-hour courses the alliance offers for free, Director Bill Lindsey said.

In 2010, a 39-year-old Greenville man with schizophrenia died after officers repeatedly shocked him with a Taser. Andrew Torres’ family had called police for help taking him in for treatment, saying his was off his medication and delusional. The city later settled a $500,000 wrongful death lawsuit with the family.

Since then, Greenville has put all of its officers through the alliance’s 40-hour course, Lindsey said.

“If they’re not trained, it escalates to criminality or violence or trouble,” said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s not fair to law enforcement to put them on the street and not equip them.”

Paton Blough, who advocated the law, knows firsthand the difference that training makes. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the Greenville resident was arrested six times between 2005 and 2009 during psychotic episodes in Alabama, Virginia and South Carolina. He now works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to educate officers on his “successful arrests” verses violent ones that left him with scars.

Blough applauds a Greenville officer who “did it right” by allowing his brother to bring his medication and offering him some water. In his delusion, Blough said, he thought the officer drugged his water, so the officer offered to take the first sip.

But in another encounter in Greenville County, he said, he was hit with a baton and pepper spray and, after being put in the squad car in a hospital parking lot, shocked three times in the chest with a Taser.

“I remember thinking they’d stuck bombs in my shoes. I was fighting for my life,” he said. The situation could have gone differently with a “tactical pause” and calm questioning, he said. But he ended up in jail on nine charges, including resisting arrest, and, thankfully, got referred to the county’s then-fledgling mental health court.

“This comes from a deep, deep spot in my heart,” Blough said of his advocacy.

The law, approved unanimously by both chambers and signed in May, doesn’t specify where or how long the training must be, only that it must be approved by the Criminal Justice Academy. The Legislature provided no additional funding for it.

The academy is working with the National Alliance on Mental Health to create the class. It will likely be a four-hour course offered online, which saves money and provides flexibility, academy spokeswoman Florence McCants said.

© 2017 Associated Press


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