It wasn’t hard, last week, for the local law enforcement officials who make thousands of mental health calls a year to imagine a worst-case scenario that ended with the slaughter of children, as the nation witnessed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
As police officers in Montgomery County have added mental-health triage into their daily duties, a common question hovers over many of the interactions: Is today’s case a health problem, or a violence problem?
The range is daunting. In Montgomery, there is the veteran who has barricaded himself from police multiple times, leaving officers concerned the danger could escalate. There is the man who has spoken at a public meeting about being “a victim of covert harassment” — and could be a threat.
And there are hundreds of sad but benign cases, like the woman who hid out on a police-headquarters fire escape and then kept telling the officers, “Do not inject me!” Or the person known to officers as “Karate Man,” who they have repeatedly taken in for psychiatric evaluation.
And there are countless others whose condition or history police know little or nothing about.
Officer Scott Davis has helped hundreds of Montgomery officers navigate the blurry areas between sickness and public safety. He’s heard the assumptions, and once held them himself: “There are places for those people,” the ones paralyzed by voices, or suffering after psychotic breakdowns — or who don’t even know they’re sick.
He now understands that the mentally ill in need of professional care are everywhere, beginning with “the streets.”
And parents’ houses, and sketchy apartments, and upscale neighborhoods.
Davis races around Montgomery acting as a fast-talking bridge between law enforcement and the people who treat, and those who need treatment for, mental illness. He joins routine calls and SWAT take-downs. And as coordinator of the county’s crisis intervention team for mental health cases, he helps organize quarterly sessions that have trained more than 1,200 officers from Montgomery and elsewhere by putting them together with therapists, more experienced officers, and other specialists.
Part enforcer, part advocate, Davis slides easily between the lingo of street cops, social workers, and doctors.
“I don’t think people take mental health emergencies as seriously as they do somatic emergencies, like heart attacks, cancer, strokes and things like that,” Davis said. That’s true for the patients as well. “It all comes down to lack of insight. These guys don’t know they’re sick. They think everything’s cool.”