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Police Can't Do Everything: The Importance of Mental Health Professions

Ricardo Munoz should still be alive today and getting the help that he needs; at least that's what his family was hoping for. Tragically, that is not what happened. In an escalated situation, he was murdered by a police officer that was not properly prepared for the situation.

Our social and political systems let Ricardo down in so many ways. Our police system is wholly unable to work through these situations in the techniques that are needed. In a moment that needed calm, reassurance, care, and de-escalation. One police officer was not the appropriate response.

Years leading up to this event, Ricardo needed consistent and accessible mental health care. He needed consistent appointments and therapies that were available without cost. His family needed support and training, without charge, to learn skills that would help them maintain Ricardo’s mental health stability.

The potential paranoia and psychosis with bipolar mood swings was a difficult challenge for this young man to deal with. These were things that could have happened to prevent the events that happened on Sunday, September 13th. Some of these systems are broken and need to be fixed. Some of them were built to oppress and need to be torn down.

This brings us to Sunday. So many things could have happened before that would have led to a different outcome. Many things could have happened that would have kept Ricardo alive. When the family called Crisis Intervention, we do not know what happened, but we do know that the outcome could have been different. These following interventions could have helped

  • Crisis Intervention should have stayed on the line throughout the incident to continue to work to calm the situation and support the individuals that go to the scene.

  • Crisis Intervention should have gone out with the police and been the leader in the situation as the mental health experts. Armed individuals will almost always escalate the individual without saying or doing anything.

  • Multiple people should have gone out and since it was a crisis call, an ambulance team should have been there.

  • More assessment of the situation should have occurred and been communicated by Crisis Intervention to the 911 dispatch and individuals who went out to the call. This would have improved the understanding of symptoms and behaviors.

  • Trained mental health individuals should have gone out. These individuals know how to interact with someone struggling with paranoia and possible psychosis.

  • When the officer was there, he could have assessed for information on the situation from the women who came out of the door before he showed himself in the doorway

  • Even as Ricardo is running toward the officer, the officer had moments to use interventions: use calm and supportive language, remain calm, talk slowly and steadily.

  • In the event of feeling like he had to act, the officer could have used non-lethal measures. He could have tried to disarm Ricardo. He could have used other instruments like tear gas or his club. It is important to understand that de-escalation training includes ways to disarm escalated individuals that are holding weapons, even a knife.

All of these interventions could have helped to reach a different outcome where Ricardo is alive. These show the multiple ways that we have failed Ricardo and his family. In the end, he should have gotten the mental health help that he needed and not a death sentence.

The following are some steps that you can take if you are concerned that someone is at risk of harm to themselves or others.

  • Step 1: Speak with the individual in crisis slowly and calmly, reassuring them that you support them. Explain to them what you are doing through each step, not making sudden changes or movements. Also, remove any dangerous objects that they could use.

  • Step 2: If the individual continues to escalate, call Crisis Intervention: 717-394-2631. Work through the situation with them. This is the safest way. If there continues to be a risk of harm situation, keep Crisis Intervention on the line, but also move to step 3.

  • Step 3: Call 911 and say that it is a mental health crisis. It would be best if Crisis Intervention would be able to make this call and update dispatch on the case prior to anyone coming out to the scene. Request a crisis intervention response. This will send a different set of emergency responders out to you for assistance.

  • Step 4: Let the individual in crisis know who is coming and that you want to get them help.

Matt Kirkley, MSW is a social worker who directs a therapy program that works with families. Matt has worked in the mental health field for many years with clients experiencing mental health challenges.

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