How Does Law Enforcement Handle Mental Health Crises?

by Carla Occaso

Police chief Anthony Facos speaks with The Bridge about how law enforcement handles situations in which a person is in danger to themselves or others.

Police chief Anthony Facos speaks with The Bridge about how law enforcement handles situations in which a person is in danger to themselves or others.

MONTPELIER — What happens when a family member, a neighbor or a friend suddenly becomes a danger to him or herself or others? Maybe they are suicidal. Maybe they are threatening to kill someone. They have a weapon, perhaps, or have gone outside in the winter without enough clothes on.

A common reaction would be to call the police. The Montpelier Police Department implemented an internal policy on March, 2012, for just such situations. It is titled “Dealing with Persons of Diminished Capacity.” The purpose of the policy is to help officers gain tactical and processing skills to deal safely with a potentially lethal situation. “Tactical” basically means the physical response, and “processing” basically means using verbal communication to guide the situation through planned procedures.

According to the document, a person is considered to be of diminished capacity when they are intoxicated, suicidal, experiencing medical complications or are mentally ill. These people do not behave in a typical, peaceful manner. Rather, they “display conduct that is bizarre, irrational, unpredictable, and threatening.” Therefore, they don’t always respond to police officers’ use of commands or force. The officer needs to prevent danger and harm and get help as quickly as possible from trained mental health professionals.

This is the very reason Team Two — an alliance between law enforcement and men tal health services — was formed. Anthony Facos, chief of the Montpelier Police Department, was involved with the formation of Team Two.

The Bridge met with Facos at the station on September 22 to go into detail about how law enforcement deals with mental health crises. According to Facos, “I’ve been a cop here since 1985 and I’ve always known if we run into someone with mental health problems you have Washington County Mental Health as a resource to cover you. But in other parts of the state there have been some interactions with law enforcement that, justifiably or not, have resulted in some horrific and tragic outcomes. You know, think about the shooting in Burlington, the Fortunati shooting in Orange County,” Facos said.

The Joe Fortunati incident is an extreme example of a family/mental health crisis gone wrong. Fortunati was living in a tent and “there was a state police SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) call out due to some of the threats and concerns,” Facos explained. The following is an edited version from the 2006 report released by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and printed in the Randolph Herald:

“The events leading up to the incident began on June 19, 2006, when members of the [state and federal workers] were working in the area of Copper Mine Road in Corinth. The workers came upon a tent that had been set up in the roadway, and encountered a man later identified as Joseph A. Fortunati. He refused to identify himself to the workers, and became very agitated when informed that he could not camp in that area.

“Fearing the potential for violence, they left the area. They returned on June 23 and saw the same man camped out in the road, and also saw that ropes and logs were blocking the roadway. As the workers approached Mr. Fortunati, he ran into the woods.

“The workers then contacted the police. Troopers from the state police barracks in Bradford learned that the individual involved was Joseph Fortunati.

“His father, Robert Fortunati contacted the police and told them that his son did not like the state police and had problems with law enforcement in the past. Robert also said that his son was bipolar and schizophrenic and had not been taking his medication. He said his son had (previously) been treated at the Clara Martin Center.

“Robert told the police he believed Joseph had a handgun, had threatened him with it in the past, and believed Joseph was capable of using it … Robert was advised to contact the state police with further information.

“The troopers contacted the Clara Martin Center to obtain additional information. A therapist confirmed that Fortunati was suffering from mental illness, that she had heard that he had a gun, and that she believed he was capable of using it. The following day, June 24, 2006, Robert Fortunati telephoned the state police to inform them that he, his wife, and his son, Robert Fortunati, Jr., had gone to speak with Joseph earlier that morning, and attempted to convince him to leave the area. In response, Joseph pulled out a handgun and pointed it at his brother Robert Jr., and told them to get out of there now. He also said that Joseph had threatened to kill all of them if they ever came back.

“(Based on that information) State police decided to arrest Fortunati for the offenses of aggravated assault, a felony, and reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor.

“Because the police knew Fortunati was armed with a handgun, and mentally unstable, the officers in Bradford sought assistance from the Tactical Services Unit and the Hostage Negotiation Unit. An incident commander, Capt. Walter Goodell, was charged with coordinating the response from the members of the two units.

“When the Tactical Services team approached the area (near) Fortunati’s campsite … one of the officers saw Fortunati and began talking to him. However, after a brief conversation, Fortunati quickly moved away.

“Tpr. Snetsinger, as well as other officers in the area, repeatedly yelled to Fortunati to stop and to put his hands up. Fortunati did not comply with these commands. The officers then attempted to gain compliance by the use of less than lethal force, firing beanbag rounds at him. This had no apparent effect on Fortunati, who went to his vehicle, reached into it, and then ran towards the woods.

“One of the officers saw that Fortunati had a handgun and yelled “GUN” to alert the others. Fortunati took cover behind a tree. The officers were spread out, some in tall grass in an overgrown field and others positioned among a thin line of small saplings, which offered little cover. Despite repeated calls to Fortunati to drop the gun, to come out, and put his hands up, he did not comply. Another less than lethal beanbag round fired at Fortunati was also unsuccessful. Fortunati then pulled out his handgun, raised it to chest level and pointed it at Tprs. Snetsinger and Campagne.

“In response, Sgt. Thomas and Tpr. Campagne both fired lethal rounds at Mr. Fortunati, who later died … A black handgun, which was loaded, was recovered from under his chest in the area where his hands had been.”

To avoid events such as this in the future, Mary Moulton, former acting commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health gathered Vermont State Police staff, Chief Anthony Facos from the Montpelier Police Department, Washington County Mental Health (Gary Gordon in particular), and others to come up with a plan. “We came together with Kristen Chandler, who, at the time was deputy attorney general for the Department of Mental Health and former counsel for the Department of Public Safety,” Facos said, further explaining that their efforts have caught on statewide. “Where we really got momentum was the rebuilding of the mental health system post Irene,” he said.

“We tried to look at what are we trying to accomplish on these calls, especially as law enforcement is, statewide, seeing a significant increase in these calls,” Facos said. “The mental health system had been fragmented around the state. We formed Team Two. The Team Two concept is law enforcement on one side and mental health clinicians on the other. And one of the challenges at the state level is that we know we have law enforcement throughout the state, but what we did not have consistently (and we are still kind of struggling with) is the clinical arm. So once we built the curriculum, we held a meeting statewide for all the police chiefs and state police commanders at the Elk’s Club in Montpelier. This happened around 2011–2012.”

Facos continued, “Once we formalized what we were going to cover in a one-day training in locations all over the state (I would even go down to White River Junction to train the trainers), we began training both mental health workers and officers. The model is what we focus on. Scenario training. A phone call comes in and the person is intoxicated with a firearm. What do you do with that?”

“We want the participants, law enforcement and crisis workers, to understand their roles and how to resolve this situation.” Facos said. “There are three key buckets that we look at. What are the legal issues? What are the clinical issues? And what are the safety issues? Somebody could be taken into protective custody so they are denied liberty if the emergency warrants. That is why Kristen Chandler, the coordinator for Team Two, provides the legal piece.”

“If somebody is a danger to themselves or others, we have to observe them,” Facos continued. “As we look at a situation we have to consider the options. Is there a criminal situation (disorderly conduct)? Law enforcement is called so that everybody is safe. The job of law enforcement is keeping it as stable as possible,” Facos said, further explaining the clinical part is to meet a person’s mental health needs, to make sure everyone is safe, and to “make sure the person who is having the crisis gets the appropriate mental and psychological care. That is the goal.”

Team Two coordinator Kristen Chandler recently released an announcement that her office is awarding the first Team Two Frank Silfies Award. Silfies, who has since died,  was a member of the first Team Two steering committee, according to the release, which states the award goes to “a law enforcement officer and a mental health crisis clinician who exemplify a collaborative response to mental health crises.”

This year’s winners are Christi Sousie, a Health Care and Rehabilitation Service crisis worker in Windham County, and Lt. Jeremy Evans of the Brattleboro Police Department. Presentation of the award will be on October 6 at the Department of Mental Health conference at Lake Morey.

Kristin Chandler, Team Two Coordinator may be reached at teamtwovermont@gmail.com or via telephone at 236-5065.

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