By Robert Kittle
A South Carolina House subcommittee passed a bill Thursday morning that would change the way police handle people with mental illness. Officers would be required to go through much more training on crisis intervention, and they would no longer transport to mental hospitals people who are not a danger to themselves or others. Instead, ambulances could transport those patients.
Bill sponsor Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, says, “I think mental illness is a health care issue, and in those cases where the mentally ill person is not an actual danger to himself or to other people, that that person should be transported in an ambulance and not in the back of a patrol car handcuffed.”
Patton Blough, a mental health advocate from Greenville who suffers from bipolar disorder, says being transported in an ambulance is much better than in the back of a squad car. “Being taken to a mental hospital and you’re actually calm now at this point, and having handcuffs slapped on you? It’s humiliating,” he says. “I was probably having PTSD feelings of, like, what are they going to do?”
The other part of the bill deals with crisis intervention training. Now, officer cadets get 9 hours of training in that at the Criminal Justice Academy. This bill would increase that requirement to 40 hours of training in crisis management. Capt. Stacey Owens, coordinator of the crisis intervention team at the Greenville Police Department, told the subcommittee, “It would cover all the new officers, which there’s a lot of new officers come in, and then we could continue through NAMI and train officers that are currently working now, and I think the numbers would get there where we need them to be.” NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Blough says proper training can make a huge difference. He’s been arrested six times during psychotic episodes. “Three of them went well and three of them went fairly violent, and I truly believe the difference was the way the officers dealt with me, not so much as my mental state at the time,” he says.
The bill will go to a full committee next week. Rep. Bannister expects it to pass there and go to the full House.
The subcommittee is also considering another bill that would create a statewide crisis intervention task force. Blough says of the bills, “I believe they save lives, that they save tax dollars, that they help families be reunited, help people to recover.”