Garner officer wants help, not prison for mentally ill

kjahner@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

Garner officer Steve Doak was recognized for his work on the department's Crisis Intervention team this year, a team that works to help people with mental illnesses.


— Police Officer Steve Doak remembers responding to a scene where someone was trying to get into a church. The man said it was where he and his wife had been married.

Eventually he asked Doak if he believed in God. Doak said yes. The man then told Doak to take out his gun and shoot him in the chest, and he wouldn’t die.

He defused the situation, one of the more extreme cases he’s faced, making Doak glad he volunteered for a course on dealing with the mentally ill. And on Oct. 31, the Garner Police Department named him the Crisis Intervention Team’s Officer of the Year. Wake County also named him one of the county’s CIT Officers of the Year.

“A lot of officers don’t recognize that someone has a mental illness; they see it as a person with an illness just defying their orders, and they end up taking them off to jail,” Doak said.

Lt. Chris Clayton, then a sergeant, initially asked for volunteers to undergo a 40-hour CIT training course in 2006. Doak, a retired 20-year Navy veteran who had been on the force only about a year, volunteered along with four others for Garner’s original team.

The training doesn’t come with special responsibilities, but when trained officers hear a call that sounds like it might involve someone with a mental illness, they either swap calls with the responding officer or join. They use their training – which includes sitting down with people with mental illness for back-and-forth discussion on what each side deals with – to deescalate situations.

Now CIT-trained officers have become increasingly common. Garner’s team is at least double the original five, and CIT officers are on duty 24 hours a day, according to chief Brandon Zuidema. That, Doak said, makes life easier on the mentally ill. Some even call police asking for help to get to mental health service providers.

“It’s getting a little more common now that people with mental illnesses know that there are CIT officers out there and they’ll call in and ask a CIT officer for assistance,” Doak said, adding that the situation can still be tenuous. “Sometimes they look at police officers in negative way because of the way they’ve been dealt with before.”

Doak said the issues often come in spurts; he can go a month without encountering a mental health issue, then have two or three in a shift. He called the course very effective in preparing officers for a wide variety of issues, from children to older adults. His military background helps him relate to veterans, who are disproportionately likely to suffer mental health problems.

The training, facilitated by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, is something every officer should go through, in Doak‘s opinion.

“It helps keep people with mental crisis out of the jail,. You think they’re doing something bad when actually they’re just trying to get some help,” Doak said.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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