New Cleveland Police Policy Designed to Protect the Mentally Ill

By Eric Heisig, Cleveland Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- When the city of Cleveland set out to create a new crisis intervention policy that governs how police officers handle encounters with the mentally ill, it wasn't explicitly because of Tanisha Anderson, but rather a pattern of similar incidents.

The 37-year-old's death while handcuffed by police in front of a family member's home during a November 2014 mental health episode came less than a month before the Justice Department issued a blistering report highlighting decades of unconstitutional policing and use-of-force abuses within the ranks of the Cleveland police.

"Officers too often use unreasonable force against individuals with mental illness, individuals in medical crisis and individuals with impaired faculties," according to a 58-page letter from the Justice Department addressed to Mayor Frank Jackson.

The Justice Department's criticisms of how the police handled encounters involving the mentally ill included incidents that had many of the hallmarks that led to Anderson's death. In the three years that passed since she died, the city agreed to a court-enforced reform agreement with the Justice Department and has taken steps to retrain how every officer within the department's ranks is supposed to deal with people in the throes of a mental-health crisis.

The city implemented new policies for all officers as of January, after nearly all city police officers were trained during 2017. It outlines specific steps officers must take when dealing with the mentally ill when responding to a call for help.

David Malik, an attorney representing the Anderson family, says he thinks the new policy potentially eliminates "brain freeze" in officers responding to someone in crisis.

A Cuyahoga County grand jury, after hearing evidence presented by the Ohio Attorney General's Office, declined to issue charges Fridayagainst officers Scott Aldridge and Bryan Myers, who responded to a call for help with Anderson.

Anderson suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and was suffering from a breakdown when her family called police to its home on Ansel Road. She died after Aldridge and Myers cuffed her hands behind her back and placed her in the back of a police car following a struggle.

What happened next is disputed. Family said one of the officers engaged a take-down move on Anderson and put a knee on her back. The officers told investigators that Anderson struggled and wiggled her way out of the car and onto the ground, and that she kicked at the officers before she lost consciousness.

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office said Anderson died from a "sudden death associated with physical restraint in a prone position" and ruled her death a homicide. Her heart disease and bipolar disorder were considered factors that increased her chance of sudden death, the office said.

However, that ruling and cause were not presented to the grand jury, as the Medical Examiner's Office relied on material later deemed improper to make its findings.

Whether or not either officer used force, the city's new policy contains specific steps for officers to use when responding to a call involving people in crisis.

They includes: assessing risk to officers and others, requesting emergency medical services if required and treating each case as unique.

If a friend or family member can provide information to help, seek it out, the new policy states.

Most importantly, officers should take steps to calm the situation if possible. An officer should try to establish a rapport and speak slowly and calmly. They should ask questions instead of stating orders and show empathy, among other steps.

Officers should show patience and move slowly, trying to wait out a person as long as possible. Force should only be used when necessary and proportional to the threat the subject poses.

However, it is OK to use handcuffs if an officer finds it reasonable, even if it's just to take the person to a hospital. However, if a person is lying down after an officer used force or the person was handcuffed, he or she should be moved to a seated position to prevent asphyxiation.

There are other aspects that deal with steering people in crisis toward the help they need and not to a jail cell.

While all officers were required to undergo eight hours of training on the new policy, the city is still forming a team and training protocol for a specialized team to deal with calls involving crisis intervention.

The monitoring team said in a filing last week that the new policy "has been recognized as a national model of crisis intervention."

Malik called the new policy "potentially a win-win."

"And it's obviously long overdue, but the good news is that the initial steps they have taken to make changes and that's very encouraging," Malik said. "I think that deaths will be prevented."