I-Team: Metro Officers Trained to Handle Mentally Ill

Ed. Note: The national debate about gun violence and gun control has generated strong emotions on all sides following the tragedies in Connecticut and Colorado. To examine these volatile issues, earlier this year, the I-Team launched an ongoing project called Guns of Nevada. At the center of each gun massacre is a story of the holes in the mental health system. Nevada ranks near the bottom when it comes to mental health services. You will find extensive information in The Mental Health Debate.

LAS VEGAS -- The one exception to Nevada's pathetic level of support for mental health services is, oddly enough, Metro Police, which spends $2 million per year for mental health services at the jail, and has trained its officers how to diffuse tense situations on the street.

When a naked man commandeers a city bus, chances are he's got mental issues. Ditto for an Elvis impersonator who becomes suicidal, or the 911 caller who says she's a banana.

Dispatcher: How did you turn into a banana?

Caller: I don't know. I just woke up and I was a banana.

Take a five minute stroll down the Las Vegas Strip, day or night, and you will encounter drugged up, messed up people, conversing with invisible friends.

Metro Police officers are far better prepared to deal with the mentally disturbed than most departments, thanks to crisis intervention training, which began in 2003 and has since been taken by more than half the force. The course includes role playing exercises so officers can learn to de-escalate mental breakdown episodes without violence.

Some of the mentally ill are taken by officers to emergency rooms where they are evaluated under what is called a Legal 2000 order. Others end up in the county jail, where, assistant sheriff Ted Moody says, Metro's mental health contractor can get them stabilized.

"People who are mentally ill, coming off their medication can become a problem," Moody said. "They may simply not be able to function. The vast majority of behaviors that land people like this in jail all over the country are not serious crimes and certainly aren't violent."

I-Team: High Percentage of Jail Population Suffer Mental Issues

But some clearly are violent. It's the one common thread that stretches from Newtown, Conn., to Aurora, Colo., to Tucson, Ariz., back to Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The killers all had mental and emotional problems. Other countries have seen mass murders but not nearly as many as in the United States. Are we crazier than other places?

Gun control advocate Brian Fadie credits American's accessibility to firearms.

"There are mentally ill people all over the world, but we don't see all over the world the mass shootings like we do here in the U.S.," Fadie said. "That is partially due to the ease and availability of assault weapons and high capacity magazines and loopholes in our background check system."

Gun rights advocate Randy Mackie says Americans tend to take more psychiatric drugs, and that such drugs are another common link to recent mass slayings.

"Schizophrenia or manic depression or bipolar disorder -- that either they were on those drugs or they recently came off of them," Mackie said.

Taking a Closer Look at Mass Murders

But with Nevada's meager mental health resources, preventing larger problems is difficult. Moody says, in a three-year period, Metro collared 16,000 people for mental evaluations. Of those, more than 600 had been picked up for evaluation by Metro three times or more, but were quickly released because there's no room to hold them.

Gulf War veteran Stanley Gibson was one of them. In the year before his death last December, he'd been picked up for mental evaluation three times, including the very day that a confrontation with police ended with Gibson being fatally shot by an officer.

Metro Police Officer-Involved Shootings

"In those violent encounters with the police and the mentally ill, there is statistically a very good chance that someone is going to be injured or be killed," Moody said. "The real danger is, are there thousands more Stanley Gibsons out there waiting to happen, people who are decompensating, not getting the care they need, who may ultimately become violent?"

Capt. Frank Reagan at the Clark County Detention Center says it is frustrating for his team to see the same mentally-challenged inmates time after time, because the police have no choice but to cut them loose after a few days, meaning these troubled souls melt right back into obscurity, with no attention or care, until something dramatic happens.


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