All he was trying to do was help…
To hear El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles tell the story, you’d think he was the officer on the beat some years ago, responding to a call of a ‘subject harassing bystanders’ at a mall, when it all went terribly wrong.
Normally jovial and smiling, Sheriff Wiles transforms when he shares the story. The room goes still, as he recounts it – in that law enforcement tone – an attempt to separate the officer from the emotion of the incident.
It was some years ago, in California, that an officer was dispatched to a common call. Numerous shoppers called to tell police that a man was loudly and incessantly harassing anyone who passed by. The officer responded alone, as happens across the country every day.
Once the officer arrived, he saw the man – wildly flailing his arms and yelling at anyone within reach – as people gave him a wide berth. Approaching from behind, the officer reached out to tap the man on the shoulder; a common response, an attempt to reach out to a fellow human in distress and non-verbally say, “I’m here…what is the matter?”
Wiles pauses, almost as if to urge the officer not to touch the man, now removed by years and miles, but seared into his memory.
As soon as the officer made contact, the man wheeled around and – in one swift move – hit the officer with a roundhouse blow to the jaw. The officer falls.
The shock of that officer’s thoughts are now reflected in Wiles’ eyes.
The man then reaches down, grabs the officer’s weapon and fires. The officer dies, the mentally ill civilian’s life is forever changed.
“The problem is…I don’t think my officers knew how to deal with someone going though a mental crisis,” Wiles concludes as the room breathes again, “after that, I made sure our officers were certified as mental health officers.”
The issue of mental health and treatment is not a new one, but the way the subject is now an everyday news story tends to overshadow the response. And those responding are the men and women of law enforcement.
“When you have that deputy shot in Houston, or that reporter and her photographer killed, or any one of the countless other shootings we’ve had in this nation…you have to think – how can it be stopped and who is in position to stop it,” Wiles asks, as we sit around the conference room table in his office, awards lauding his training of officers in dealing with mentally ill persons in the field, hanging over his shoulder.
“It’s the officer, or deputy or whoever is the first responder…it is their responsibility to de-escalate and come to a non-violent solution to the situation…there’s just too many of these ending up with someone dead.”
Starting with his stint as the El Paso Chief of Police in 2003, and on through his time now as El Paso County Sheriff, Wiles has made it his mission to educate his officers – now deputies, detention officers and civilians under his leadership – on exactly how to handle situations with potentially mentally ill subjects.
Wiles shares that during one particularly bad year during his time as Chief, nine of the officer-involved shootings involved someone with a history of mental health issues. After the training, those incidents dropped.
“The training not only helped my officers deal with someone who was mentally ill,” Wiles adds, “it’s helped them deal with other situations and people…reading the signs and behavior of a rape victim, or the parents of a 10-year-old child who has just been killed, officers can be kind of gruff – but this helps them relate to those they are serving.”
Wiles adds, “There’s nothing worse than a family reaching out to you, to help fix the situation, and it end up in a deadly shooting…you have to give the officers to tools to avoid that and resolve that to everyone’s benefit.”
Sheriff Wiles’ involvement with the city isn’t relegated to the past. With a majority of the calls in the county coming from the city and being handled by the El Paso Police Department, he has reached out to the police department to put together a Mental Health Crisis unit. The unit would be staffed by both city and county law enforcement officers, specially trained to deal with mental health crisis situations – such as suicides in progress – to make sure the victim gets the correct treatment from first responders. That plan is still in the works.
With the program in place at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, Wiles turned his attention to the next, logical place to initiate training: the jail. After a recent tour of the jail in Harris County (Houston), Wiles and his staff were shocked to find out that their facility is the largest mental health facility in the state.
Lieutenant Michaela Hebeker is assigned to the facility in East Montana, and sees both the difficulty and the benefit of the training.
“The jail is the larger problem…that’s where those in crisis are taken and first handled, so the employees and inmates there see a benefit from a calm, quiet facility…it’s just safer,” Hebeker says, “so when you have jail staff that are trained and can help that one inmate who may need a quiet room it just makes sense for the good of everyone.”
The new 400+ bed addition to the jail will feature improvements, tailored to those inmates who may be suffering a mental health crisis.
“The color on the walls, the concentration of inmates there, and the design of some of the cells were all planned with the idea to help those who may be in crisis.” Lt. Hebeker says.
With the staff trained in identifying incoming inmates, the staff is now on a proactive stance, rather than reactive; allowing for more planning ahead of the inmate’s next crisis.
“If we know going in that a prisoner is having difficulty due to loud noises, and may not have been taking the correct medication, we can place him (or her) in the new unit and get them the help they need, right there and then,” Hebeker adds.
The idea with all these programs, is to make sure that the gaps within the Criminal Justice System – from the deputies in the field, to the staff in the jail, to the courtroom personnel – assist the person who had this crisis,” Wiles states, “get them sustained help, and get them out of the system so they won’t re-offend.”
To that end, he is very involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as well as the Justice Leadership Council – of which he is the Chair. He will also be hosting the kick off event for the 5th Annual NAMIWalks 5k on September 9th, being held at The Lunchbox at 3623 Buckner starting at 6 p.m.
The actual walk will be held at Memorial Park (1701 North Copia) at 8:30 a.m. www.namiwalks.org/elpaso
With the Paso Del Norte Health foundation providing grants to the Sheriff’s Office for continued training, and Emergence Health Network set to come on board at the jail (pending County Commissioner’s approval,) Wiles and his staff have high hopes that their role as impromptu mental health providers will make a difference.
“My philosophy is that I would much rather prevent people from being arrested, prevent crimes from happening, than to have to deal with it afterwards…and if this community,” Wiles says, tapping the stack of mental health reports on the conference table for emphasis, “can get rid of the stigma of mental health and be proactive like us, everyone’s job – and life – just got easier.”