Police across state to be trained on handling of mentally ill

Hartford - Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is poised to sign a bill requiring police officers to take training courses on how to handle situations involving the mentally ill, part of several health reforms proposed after the Newtown school shooting.

Details will have to be worked out, but Malloy said the training will include the use of crisis intervention teams that are employed by nearly 2,700 police departments across the country, including many already in Connecticut. The teams involve pairing police with mental health experts to diffuse situations and avoid lethal force.

More than a half-dozen police-involved shootings have occurred in the state since January of last year. One was the case of Michael Dugas, a 52-year-old man who was killed with six shots by Norwich officers who fired a total of 41 rounds. He had refused demands to drop what turned out to be a pellet handgun and then pointed it at an officer.

"Obviously, there needs to be more training," said Dugas' sister, April Carfi. "You should take more than a few minutes before you decide to pull the trigger. ... He just wanted somebody to talk to. He just wanted someone to listen to him. The whole thing was just unfortunate."

Dugas, whose wife died of brain cancer in 2003, had called 911 the evening of Feb. 24, 2013, to report a man with a gun in a public park - himself, police said. He had a history of depression and alcohol abuse, and his family accused officers of participating in a "suicide by cop" situation they were not trained to handle.

The officers were cleared of wrongdoing. Carfi has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department, including allegations that police unnecessarily used lethal force and weren't adequately trained to deal with mentally ill people.

Messages seeking comment were left with Norwich police and lawyers for the department.

The new police training requirement is in a massive budget bill approved this month by state lawmakers. A spokesman for Malloy said the governor will sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

The training mandate was among several mental health system reforms proposed by Malloy in the wake of the Newtown shooting that killed 20 children and six adults in December 2012.

A 2010 study published in the journal Community Mental Health found that around 10 percent of calls to medium and large police departments involve a person with mental illness. It also found that crisis intervention team training influenced officers to resolve situations involving the mentally ill, using force less frequently and getting people services they need instead of arresting them.

Hartford police have been using crisis intervention teams for eight or nine years, said Sgt. Edward Yergeau. Encounters with mentally ill people, he said, are some of the most unpredictable and dangerous ones officers face, and police face them on a daily basis.

"Most mentally ill people are not dangerous, but you don't know that until you interact with them," Yergeau said. "That's why crisis intervention programs are important. Most mentally ill people are not criminals. The whole point of our ... training is to decriminalize their actions. We try to not put mentally ill people in jail."

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