In New Hampshire, 16% of police officers are trained to handle mental health emergencies


Monitor staff

Published: 01-21-2023 5:00 PM

Just a fraction of the state’s police officers have completed training that is considered the “gold standard” for law enforcement to better respond to mental health emergency calls.

About 16% of all 2,900 sworn police officers in New Hampshire have received Crisis Intervention Team training, which takes 40 hours to complete. Neither of the police officers who responded to an emergency call in Gilford on New Year’s Day that left a 17-year-old dead had been trained, despite the police department asking to enroll more of their officers for more than a year.

Following the shooting of Mischa Fay by a Gilford police sergeant, the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, a mental health advocacy group issued a statement calling law enforcement organizations to prioritize having their personnel prepared to handle mental health crisis calls through programs such as CIT training.

To avoid tragedies like the one in Gilford, the state needs to continue system transformations, said Susan Stearns, executive director of NAMI-NH. The other piece she noted was to make sure law enforcement agencies respond only when it is absolutely necessary. Instead, she suggested that the mobile crisis unit, a resource available through the state’s rapid response access point, be used to handle mental health crises.

“Situations like this remind us that we still have a lot of work to do and how important it is for us to continue our collective efforts to improve outcomes for people affected by mental illness and ultimately save lives,” said Stearns.

Getting more officers to take CIT training takes time and money. Because the training isn’t routine for all new officers and due to the time involved, police departments cannot have all of their existing personnel in training at the same time. This year NAMI NH is offering 11 CIT training sessions, with the second starting this week.

A deadly call for help

For the Gilford police department, responding to mental health crisis calls is not uncommon. According to Gilford Police Lt. Adam Vansteensberg, mental health emergency calls typically increase during the holidays.

That was the case for one such call from the family of Mischa Fay. On the evening of Jan. 1, the family dialed 911 for assistance for their son, who they said was armed with a knife.

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Only one officer in the Gilford police department, Alyssa Raxter, has received CIT training out of the department’s 18 full-time and two part-time officers.

Within two minutes of arriving at the house, officer Nathan Ayotte deployed a Taser and Sgt. Douglas Wall shot teenager in the chest. Fay was pronounced dead at a local hospital, and an autopsy report revealed that he died as a result of a single gunshot.

The Attorney General’s office is investigating the incident and has yet to release a formal report or body camera footage.

This was not the first time officers from the Gilford police department were called to the Fay residence for Mischa’s mental health emergencies. Records from the Gilford police department show that police were called to their home six times in the last year. Ayotte and Wall had both previously responded twice to calls involving the teen’s mental health.

Despite investing in trainings, one of which was a scenario-based training using an Axon virtual reality simulator, with a predetermined scenario dealing with a schizophrenic individual, the Gilford police department does not have a policy in place to respond to mental health calls.

“We don’t have a specific policy directly dealing with a mental health call,” said Vansteensberg. “It’s pretty vague.”

Gaps in mental health emergency training

At the recruitment academy, officers receive training in dealing with a mental health crisis situation, but it is not as immersive as CIT training, according to John Scippa, director of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council.

CIT training is a 40-hour “gold standard” program in which law enforcement personnel go through a curriculum designed to reduce the risk of significant injury or death during interactions between police officers and people suffering from mental illnesses. During training, officers learn how to deescalate a situation by using scenario-based instruction and role-playing. Volunteers with lived experiences are present at the trainings, said Stearns.

After officers are trained, they typically provide referrals to mental health resources when they interact with individuals experiencing a mental health emergency. NAMI has observed that referrals typically increase after a group has been trained while the program is still fresh in their minds. While some officers report the referrals they make to NAMI, others do not.

In 2022, 350 referrals were reported to NAMI NH from officers were out working in the field.

Training at the academy for new police recruits is broken down to an eight-hour block of instruction on tactical deescalation and a 24-hour block of training in responding to mental health crises led by NAMI NH, said Scippa.

“CIT training is not delivered at the academy level but is available to all police officers across the state to attend,” said Scippa. “It is a real immersive program with regard to training officers to have a deeper understanding of how to respond to folks that are suffering from a mental health crisis.”

The academy plans to incorporate CIT training into its curriculum and aims to have it in place by the end of the year.

Use of force

As the New Hampshire Department of Justice continues its investigation, the use of force in the Gilford shooting has sparked a debate on police shooting involving mentally ill individuals. In New Hampshire, more than 60% of the people shot and killed by police in the last decade struggled with mental illness, according to a Monitor analysis based on years of Attorney General reports.

Mental health advocates are pushing to establish a mental health incident review panel to conduct an in-depth analysis of events that lead to an incident, but no such review will occur in the case of the Gilford incident because the panel does not exist. If created, the panel would offer an opportunity to dissect such incidents, evaluate policies and procedures, and determine if changes needed to be implemented.

“I think it is so important, so that we can really examine the systems and see whether there were any missed opportunities to intervene sooner,” said Stearns. “But there’ll be no opportunity for lessons learned to try and use this tragedy to prevent future ones unless we move forward with something like a mental health incident review panel.”

Samantha Heuring, a plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in criminal defense and civil rights cases, said that use of force is subject to a three-factor analysis, called the Graham test.

The test determines whether police officers used unreasonable or excessive force – the severity of the crime, the threat to the officers’ or another person’s safety and resistance or evasion from arrest.

“In every case I’ve ever dealt with, dealing with not only mental health but also with police use of force in general, the police department takes the positions that the force used was justified and not excessive,” said Heuring.

Heuring said she has personally never had a case where a department acknowledged that the use of force they used against a subject, whether mentally ill or not, was excessive under the law or otherwise wrong.