The story is all too familiar: An interaction between someone with mental illness and first responders goes wrong, with deadly consequences. A 2015 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation estimated that one-third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers fit this description.
One central Indiana town is facing the issue head-on.
The Cumberland Police Department initiated the Cumberland Assertive Response and Engagement Team in January. The CARE Team is designed by Chief Michael Crooke to help those suffering from mental illness and addiction by providing resources to them and their families.
The CARE Team reviews case reports daily, searching for people in need of assistance. A triage team — which also includes local chaplains — then contacts an individual or family by phone and mail. If the CARE Team deems it necessary, an officer, crisis clinician specialist and paramedic or other health care professional will visit the home.
A local solution
Cities such as Seattle, Memphis, Houston and Indianapolis all have similar mental health units. Crooke said it’s especially important for smaller towns such as Cumberland to follow suit because of their limited resources.
He said in 2017 alone, his officers spent 200 hours investigating non-criminal, mental health-related matters and initiated 24 immediate detentions. In that time, they visited 30 residences more than once for these issues, including 29 calls at just one location.
“Now this may sound like small numbers, but we’re a small area,” said Crooke. “We have a population of (about) 6,000 people.”
During the planning stages, Crooke contacted Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill for guidance.
“It is a demonstration that law enforcement certainly goes well beyond the issues of arresting people and locking people up,” Hill said. “Often it is law enforcement that ends up being … the point of contact for a lot of folks who could benefit from some other kind of care.”
Marianne Halbert is the criminal justice director for the Indiana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She was on hand March 21 for the official launch of the CARE Team, during which the CPD was honored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for being the first police department in the state to complete the One Mind Campaign pledge.
This means the CPD has established a partnership with one or more community mental health organizations; developed a model policy addressing police response to persons affected by mental illness; trained and certified its officers and staff in Mental Health First Aid or an equivalent; and provided Crisis Intervention Team training to at least 20 percent of officers and staff.
“It’s a lot more than just the immediate response to the crisis,” Halbert said of the CARE Team. “It’s making sure that there is that follow through so that, hopefully, the person will get the help that they need and there can be fewer repeat crisis runs.”
Sgt. Jimmy Laws has been in law enforcement for 18 years, 12 of which have been with the CPD. As part of the CARE Team, Laws said he relies on his “sixth sense” when reading a subject’s body language.
“Sometimes you can just catch people off guard and put them into that defensive mode,” he said. “You set the tone by going there, lowering your voice, not yelling and screaming and being in police mode, drawing guns.”
A personal connection
For Laws, the CARE Team isn’t just a part of his job, it’s something closer to a calling.
“I was chomping at the bit to be a part of the team, for the simple fact of … I consider myself a victim of suicide,” he said.
Jimmy said his brother, Alonzo Laws, was a Navy veteran who had been deployed during both the Gulf and Iraq wars. He said Alonzo was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his service.
Jimmy said Alonzo moved to Indianapolis from Chicago after he started with the CPD. While working at the Target Distribution Center, Alonzo met his future wife. After they married, Alonzo became a stepfather to his wife’s two sons and two daughters.
One winter day, with both parents out of the house, the two teenage boys began fighting. During the scuffle, the younger boy fatally stabbed his older brother. He was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter but was released at age 17 and a half.
Every year on the anniversary of his older sibling’s death, the younger one went “into a depression mode” in which he became “like a zombie.”
“It really haunted him,” he said.
Finally, after passing out all his personal possessions and saying his goodbyes, the younger brother “jumped head first” off a balcony, dying instantly.
By then, Alonzo’s personal life was falling apart. His marriage began to suffer. Alonzo reached out Jimmy for help.
“He finally told me, ‘Hey, man, this is what’s been going on in my relationship and I’m having suicidal thoughts,’” Jimmy said.
Alonzo swore Jimmy to secrecy. He made him promise not to tell any of their other siblings.
“I mentioned it to every last one of them,” said Jimmy. “And we were telling each other, ‘Let’s get him some help.’”
Despite this family support system, Alonzo was distraught. His relationship with his wife was more strained than ever. On top of that, Alonzo and Jimmy’s mother died of cancer in 2012.
The situation boiled over Nov. 9, 2012 in the break room of the Conagra Foods plant at 4300 W. 62nd St., Indianapolis. Alonzo shot and killed Anthony Hicks Sr., 45, before turning the gun on himself. Alonzo’s life ended at just 44 years old.
Crooke said the CARE Team is now starting to focus on the needs of veterans in their own community.
“We want to know about them, where they live, what rank, what branch of service they were in, so that if they have (PTSD) or something, that we can make that initial approach by referring to them as their rank and their name to get us a foot in the door; the edge sometimes you need when you’re dealing with someone,” he said.
Laws said it was hard to talk about his own story for a long time, but now he wants to use his personal history to help others.
“This is why I’m involved with the CARE Team, because if I can help save anybody who is going through depression, mental (illness), it’s worth doing,” Jimmy said. “I’ve seen it firsthand and it hits home with me.”•