New Mesa crisis response team helps tackle mental health calls

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

In 2016, police officers killed almost a thousand people in the U.S., according to in-depth research by The Washington Post. The report shows at least one in four of those killed suffered from a mental illness.

It is a health condition that does not discriminate. It affects every race, age and socioeconomic status.

"It can hit anyone at any time," explains Tom McSherry, MC, President and Founder of Crisis Preparation and Recovery, Inc. in Tempe.

In Arizona, those same statistics show police killed at least 14 mentally-ill people last year.

It's the fourth-highest number in the country behind California, Texas and Florida -- all states with much higher populations.

"I think that it will continue to get worse if the proper resources aren't put in place," says Sgt. Joseph Hutchinson of the Mesa Police Department.

Sgt. Hutchinson leads up Mesa's new Crisis Response Team and took 3TV along for the ride, giving the crew access to the front line they face every day on the job
"Maybe it's a new way of policing," said Hutchinson, describing the CRT.

The new squad was put to task last May. Six members, specially-trained to handle the overwhelming load of sensitive cases involving people who may be living on the edge.
"I think we do have a different mentality. We are looking to help people that suffer from mental illness or who might be in crisis," explains Sgt. Hutchinson.

The team's preparation goes beyond the national crisis intervention training that nearly a quarter of the department's officers are currently certified in.

"I think it's a mixture of experience, compassion, education and skills," describes Hutchinson.

He says many of the team's detectives have years of hostage negotiation experience as well as a keen interest in the mental health field and the ability to truly listen to those in trouble.

"As we listen, then we can begin to understand what they're experiencing and determine how best to help them," Sgt. Hutchinson explains.

The new changes to the department came partly in response to the death of 24-year-old Kayden Clarke, a transgender man with Asperger's syndrome and several other disorders.

[READ MORE: Autistic woman behind viral video shot, killed by Mesa police]

Police killed him after they say he suddenly lunged at officers with a knife, after first pointing it at himself. They were there to check on him after he sent a friend some concerning messages.

Only a month before he died, Clarke slammed the lack of care he was getting on YouTube. 

"Arizona has the worst mental health system across the United States," said Clarke, who posted the video in January 2016.

After his death, another YouTube video, this one from 2015 went viral, of Clarke hitting himself in the head while his therapy dog Samson tried to stop him.

[READ MORE: Viral video: Dog comforts autistic Tempe woman]

That same year, Mesa PD responded to more than 2,600 suicide calls, and thousands more involving someone struggling with a crisis.

"Substance abuse, mental illness, the pressures of today's society that are putting them in tough situations that they haven't been in before," explains McSherry. "It's important that we understand that someone who suffers from a mental illness is no different than someone who suffers from a physical illness."  

McSherry serves on the advisory board for the CRT and works with a number of Arizona police and fire departments to help first responders handle tough calls, and he says, those numbers are skyrocketing.

[RELATED: Phoenix police expands special squad for mental health calls]

"We have definitely seen, not only an increase in numbers but an increase in the severity," explains McSherry.

The increase in the severity of those sensitive calls makes them more dangerous for both parties, but the hope it that it's less so, if the detectives know who they're dealing with ahead of time.

"They know walking into that situation that this person may not have rational thought going on. So they're better prepared," says McSherry.

3TV witnessed the CRT in action as they followed-up with three people who all had previous run-ins with law enforcement and were on the brink of losing it.

The team's compassion was evident in each case.

"If it wasn't for them, I probably wouldn't be where I am now," said Grant Dorman, who's on oxygen and has a number of health issues.

Dorman recently came home from the hospital and found his service dog dead. Believing his dog was murdered, he had a major meltdown.

"They pulled me out of a dark situation where I was getting ready to do something pretty dumb. I had what they call explosive rage syndrome where when I'm pushed to that point, I don't really remember what I do," explained Dorman.

[READ MORE: Mesa man says service dog killed during break-in; police find no evidence of a crime]

Detectives also keep up with Lenore Danzy.

"I walk and talk to myself and stuff like that," said Danzy to 3TV.

She says the team's been there for her many times when she's on the verge of freaking out.

"Like when people don't get along, or people make fun of you because of your disabilities," she explained.

Or like the time she threatened to blow up a bank when things didn't go her way.

"It's more like when I forget to take my medication. But so far, they had to readjust my medicine and I've been doing good," said Danzy.

Tim Handley was armed with a shotgun and ready to open fire before the CRT stepped in.

"The night they came over, I was having hallucinations on my psyche meds. It was like a Marilyn Manson horror show and I had a 12-gauge and I was getting ready to shoot the house up," explained Handley.

The crisis response team got him to lay down his gun and come out of the house so they could take him to get help.

"They walked me out there. They talked to me. Didn't handcuff me or nothing," he described.

The team makes it clear -- these three are not criminals. They're people struggling to keep it together.

"In a way, our unit is a glorified taxi service, trying to reconnect individuals with their resources," said Sgt. Hutchinson.

 And at a time where police officers are getting a bad rap, all three had nothing but good things to say.

"I call them the 'good guys' because they always there for me," said Danzy.

Handley considers them a "friend, buddy."

"They're kind of an angel to me. If they weren't here, I wouldn't be here today," Dorman said.

In addition to those important follow-up calls, Mesa's CRT squad has two other job functions.

The team is often called out to help patrol on calls involving people in crisis.

"We know that we're not doctors. What we're looking for as a unit is, is this person a danger to them self or a danger to others," said Sgt. Hutchinson. 

He explained, though, that the squad's primary goal is to serve mental health detainers. Their official orders are to pick someone up, where each situation can be totally unpredictable.

During the ride-along with 3TV, Sgt. Hutchinson got a call from one of his detectives, who said the person they had just picked up was angry and uncooperative.

"He's very ticked-off and demanding to speak to a supervisor," explained Sgt. Hutchinson.

Detectives had the young man in the back of their patrol car at Community Bridges where they had taken him to get help. It's a mental and behavioral health provider that works with the police department on these types of calls. 

The man's parents asked he be brought in for a court-ordered mental health evaluation.

After several minutes of back and forth where the young man was clearly agitated, Sgt. Hutchinson was able to talk him into cooperating, and he calmly walked into the behavioral center.

"Sometimes we don't want to admit that a family member may be experiencing some signs or symptoms of a mental illness," explains Sgt. Hutchinson about how these calls can be tough for all involved.

Mental illness is treatable and experts say getting rid of the stigma is critical.

It involves talking about it and learning what to look out for when something isn't right.

"Help is out there. We need to make sure there are no roadblocks to obtaining that help, and along the way that there isn't discrimination or labeling," said Tom McSherry.

It's a goal Mesa's Crisis Response Team is trying to make a reality. The team's responded to well over 800 calls since they started last May. They say of those, only two people were arrested and more importantly, they are proud to say there's be zero use of force. They say the need for what they do in Mesa is so great, they're hoping to add more members to the team in the future.

"We hope that what we're doing can be a model, but we also hope that we can evolve and that our department can make this unit better and better as we move forward," said Sgt. Hutchinson.

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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