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Mentally Ill Or Criminal? Making Tough Calls In The Field

Police Training

In the early morning hours of November 19, Durham  youth Jesus Huerta left home. His family called 911, reported him as a troubled runaway and noted his drug problem. A Durham police officer located Huerta, frisked him, cuffed him, and put him in the back of a cruiser. Moments later, the 17 year-old was dead from a gunshot to the head. His family questions the circumstances surrounding his death.

The Huerta family and police disagree on what police knew about Huerta's mental state but the case raises questions about the training of law enforcement officers who deal with mental issues.

When a law enforcement officer encounters a person with mental health issues, special training can alter the outcome of the situation. In North Carolina and across the nation, the formation of Crisis Intervention Teams are designed to improve outcomes for mentally ill individuals. Captain Kim Wrenn, in Wake County's Sheriff's Department, coordinates the C.I.T. training for her branch. She says that the program does not assume that officers are familiar with mental illness but instead gives officers strategies for interacting with people who have mental illnesses:

Most officers don't get to see someone who suffers from mental illness except for when they're in a crisis. So by doing site visits, the officers can just actually sit down and talk with them and have a discussion about what better ways that they'd want to be approached when they're in a crisis.

Capt. Wrenn experienced the training firsthand and saw a change in her own perspective:

It gives you a lot more patience. You know what better questions there are to ask to get the information that you need. Better ways to say things to get the person to de-escalate.

Capt. Wrenn says the voluntary training yields positive outcomes: decreased use of force and decreased injuries. Capt. Kim Wrenn spoke with WUNC's Frank Stasio on The State of Things. Deby Dihoff, executive director of North Carolina's National Alliance On Mental Illness; and Mark Botts, a mental health law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Government, also joined our panel on police training and mental illness.

The following are resources and studies on mental health care that are referenced by our State of Things panel:

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Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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