Cop Of The Week

by Paul Bass | March 24, 2006 2:54 PM |

Officer Brian Donnelly had just returned to work after a week off. A call came in to 911 from a woman down the street. “I have a gun,” she said. “I want the cops to come kill me.”

Donnelly had spent the prior week in a classroom with 50 officers from five different departments. They were learning how to deal with potentially violent mentally ill people.

“First day back. First call. I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “Suicide by cop.”

The woman was calling from a pay phone at Kimberly Avenue and the Boulevard. Donnelly rushed over with another officer from the substation at Kimberly and Howard, where Donnelly is based. No sign of the woman.

Another officer arrived from a different direction. Suddenly the woman emerged and yelled at that officer: “Kill me! Kill me! I have a gun.”

She didn’t see Donnelly. He approached her. He had his gun drawn. She turned, and she saw him. “Omigod! Omigod!” she shouted. She lifted up the loose-fitting red shirt above her long black dress to show them “I don’t have a gun anymore!”

Then she started rambling. She wanted to die, she said. She hears voices in her head. “I’ve been digging graves for myself.”

Donnelly recognized the signs from the class the prior week: Schizophrenia. He watched her head into a busy intersection. He had to stay calm. He also had to act to prevent her and others from getting hurt.

He grabbed the woman. Then, as arranged in the class, he called a clinician who works with the cops. A second coincidence: That clinician had been talking with this same woman’s doctor. She’d gone off her medication. They were worried she was headed for a crisis.

The cops called for an ambulance. Donnelly calmed the woman down. He remembered the advice: “Slow it down. Give them time to absorb it. Don’t rush to the next job. Realize what this person is going through and hearing voices.” And as soon as she saw that help was coming, the woman, who was around 30 years old, relaxed. She thanked the cops.

At the hospital, Donnelly was able to fill in the doctor on the episode. That, too, was part of the point of his week-long training: To be able to “recognize” and “verbalize” the problem so medical professionals can help right away.

The course Donnelly took is known as Crisis Intervention Training, “CIT” for short. New Haven started running the course after a couple of deadly encounters between officers and mentally ill people. It turned out that departments nationwide were recognizing a need to tackle this problem. New Haven’s program was modeled after one already in place in Memphis and in New London. Departments from California to Missouri to Pennsylvania have been starting similar programs. Donnelly, who’s 43 and a 20-year veteran of the force, took the New Haven course — which involved role playing as well as expert lectures on mental illness — with officers from Hartford, Waterbury, West Haven and Old Saybrook.

The program aims to help cops defuse a crisis in progress, like the above incident at Kimberly Avenue and Boulevard Donnelly’s first morning back on March 6. It aims also to help them prevent crises before they happen.

Donnelly had occasion to do that, too, in just these few weeks since finishing the course.

He did it this week, on Tuesday. He’d known about a problem with an elderly man living at the Robert T. Wolfe Apartments near the train station. The man had been calling the police with paranoid complaints. People in the building were out to get him, he said. He was receiving scary messages from his television.

This month the man’s situation grew more serious. He’d started calling the mayor, the police chief, the governor. He reported a need to start defending himself.

So Donnelly visited the man Tuesday along with the state government clinician assigned to New Haven, Chris Burke, who had also organized the CIT course. Donnelly wanted to see how the man was doing — if he had enough food, if his apartment was relatively clean. He also wanted to listen; the course had emphasized that.

What he heard from the man was troubling. What he saw troubled him, too: a knife. The man had started carrying it, he said.

“We knew something had to be done,” Donnelly said, “before he hurt himself.” Donnelly and the clinician had the man committed to the Yale-New Haven psych ward.

Donnelly is a mild-mannered beat cop. Yet he has a knack for spreading a new concept. A few years ago, the department assigned him to track down illegal dumpers. He told enough officers about the dumping law and how to enforce it that it became a regular part of their jobs rather than the work of a specially assigned cop.

Now he’s a true believer in what he learned in the CIT program. “It’s not a magic pill,” he said. “But hopefully we can get a handle on this. It’s sad for everyone involved,” he said, when officers confront a violent emotionally disturbed person and don’t know how to handle it.

(To read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(To suggest an officer to be featured, click here.)

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