Valley Police Chiefs Address Mental Health in the Wake of the Michelle Cusseaux Shooting

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery brought together several Phoenix-area police chiefs yesterday to explain how the departments are handling encounters with mentally ill people.

Of course, this comes on the heels of the shooting of Michelle Cusseaux, a 50-year-old mentally ill Phoenix resident who was fatally shot August 14 by Phoenix Police Officer Percy Dupra after, police say, she threatened officers with a hammer when they went to serve a court order to deliver Cusseaux to a mental-health facility.

"Just Monday in my city, we spent 8 1/2 hours negotiating with a subject there were never any criminal charges on, yet he clearly was in crisis," Surprise Police Chief Michael Frazier said. "His girlfriend called us, his mother called us, he had a house full of weapons. He threatened to kill himself. He threatened to kill officers that responded. [Responding officers] spent hour after hour trying to communicate -- talk."

Unlike Cusseaux, the man holed up in Surprise lived through his encounter with police.

See also: -Phoenix PD's Shooting of Michelle Cusseaux to Be Investigated by DPS -Body of Mentally Ill Woman Killed by Phoenix Police Brought to City Hall

In Cusseaux's case, she wasn't accused of any crime. There was a court order to bring her to a mental-health facility, and that job comes down to police.

In Mesa, the police department is going to try to handle these situations a little differently, by making it less of a police situation.

"This duty to pick these people up and transfer them to a mental-health facility has been pushed down to the municipal level, which is the municipal police departments," Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead said. "As we look at that, you look at the equipment that police officers have at their disposal, and most of it is for dealing with criminals. That creates a hurdle for the line-level patrol officer trying to initiate these contacts peacefully."

Milstead said the department's planning a pilot program in which a firefighter who's gathered medical information on the person teams up with a police officer to serve the order. They'll use a vehicle other than a patrol car, and generally attempt to make it less of a police situation.

"This is more of a health care issue than it is a law enforcement issue," Milstead said.

Montgomery added that the idea of having police serve these orders should be "under review."

Montgomery also wanted to point out steps that agencies in the county are taking to deal with mentally ill people who encounter police, but not through these court orders.

"Up until this point, the default provider of mental health services not just here in Maricopa County, Arizona -- but really across the nation -- is the criminal justice system, and that's not just," Montgomery said. "If the only reason we're seeing someone in the courtroom is because they had a mental health episode that resulted from a lack of treatment or a lack of following a treatment plan or taking medication, if, but for that, we would never see them, that's what we should be focused on."

Montgomery said funding for expanded mental-health services will come as a result of the Arnold v. Sarn case -- a decades-old class-action lawsuit just settled this year that alleged the state and Maricopa County didn't provide the required mental-health services required by law. That will help with extending treatment programs once people are released from jail, and also include things like more monitoring programs and even housing assistance.

Another specific thing that could be done to help make better encounters between police and mentally ill people would be to create a sort of state mental-health database of court-adjudicated mental-health cases, Montgomery said. Several of the chiefs agreed that more information is needed about mentally ill people that police encounter, although since federal privacy laws prevent law enforcement from obtaining general mental-health records, they could keep tabs on the mental-health court cases through legislation.

Having the most information about a person's history might change encounters that police have with mentally ill people, according to Montgomery.

"Unfortunately in [certain] situations, the better outcome everyone wants may not happen, but it at least gives law enforcement a chance to have a different outcome than what might otherwise occur," he said.

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