Bar News - July 6, 2007
Mentally Ill and Homeless: City Officers on Front Line Call it ‘Societal Problem’
By: Elizabeth Dinan
Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 appeared in the June 22 issue of Bar News. Click the link to read: http://www.nhbar.org/publications/archives/display-news-issue.asp?id=3892
[Portsmouth’s] mentally ill homeless population is growing, police say, spawning a system that promotes recidivism, a need for alternative policing and what one expert calls the criminalization of mental illness.
When Police Chief Michael Magnant requested funds to purchase Tasers for his officers in June 2006, he cited the swelling mentally ill homeless population as the cause. Anecdotally, local officers are confronting more people exhibiting behavior indicative of mental illness. That includes vagrant Wilfred Anderson, 52, who in February was found in the back seat of a car owned by a Wal-Mart employee, where Anderson hid a pair of scissors and caused $1,000 in damage. Anderson told arresting officers he was the president of the United States and had to be hit with a Taser three times before he was subdued. During his subsequent arraignment, Anderson shouted profanities at the sitting judge.
Magnant’s previous Taser request included his wish to avoid deadly force in such situations.
Some local prisoners have known diagnoses of mental illness, while others have been declared incompetent to stand trial for their crimes. Some have been found incompetent multiple times.
Typically, it’s a public defender asking a judge to delay criminal proceedings until a client can be evaluated. And if the evaluation concludes with a finding of incompetence, the charges are dropped and the prisoner is released from jail.
Rockingham County House of Corrections mental health counselor Helen Watkins said the cost of the state evaluations is $1,000 each. Richard Hogan, a repeat local offender, has been declared incompetent four times.
Each time Hogan has been released from prison — often after being charged with criminal trespassing — the charge was then dropped, he went back on the street, and was later charged again.
“We’re wasting a lot of time and money,” Rockingham County House of Corrections Superintendent Al Wright said about the competency evaluations. “The courts are so frustrated, they’re putting it back on us.”
Watkins called it the criminalization of the mentally ill, and provided data from the February 2005 Corrections Today reporting five times more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals.
“What do you do when you have a guy who is constantly sleeping in someone’s hallway and defecating in (a public housing hallway)?” Magnant asked. “We have no choice but to arrest them.”
Solutions “come back to money,” said the police chief, who shares Wright’s opinion that the state needs a secure psychiatric unit for the mentally ill who commit crimes.
“I think I was naive years ago when I thought that if we just put our heads together, we could come up with a solution. It’s complicated. We’ve got a core group of mentally ill people who refuse to take their meds, and there are no resources available. They need some type of long-term intensive care, housing and jobs. It’s really a very difficult societal problem.”
The police chief said 99 percent of the city’s street people, who do not live in the Cross Roads House homeless shelter, are mentally ill. Often, he said, they’ve got tuberculosis, HIV and/or other sexually transmitted diseases, and use “makeshift outhouses” made from tires and buckets.
“It’s not unusual to see human waste, condoms and garbage,” he said of camps made by the homeless, where his officers are dispatched. “But where do they go?”
Mentally ill people living in homeless camps are also “set up to be robbed,” Magnant said. “Sometimes, from a law enforcement point of view, you think they’d be better off in jail.”
They’re what Watkins refers to as mercy arrests.
“For every bed that used to be in a psychiatric hospital, you now have one in a jail,” Magnant said.
For that reason, the police chief said, he’s had discussions about developing a crisis intervention team comprised of specially trained officers and community members.
“There’s no easy answer,” he said. “This is a hard-core problem.”
It’s a problem that has bonded Portsmouth’s police chief with the county jail superintendent.
“We’ve gotten to be friends over this,” Wright said.
This article is reprinted with permission from the author and from the Portsmouth Herald in which it appeared on May3, 2007. To read the two-part series on-line, go to email@example.com.