Police push back on effort to take broader look at fatal shootings

  • A New Hampshire State Police trooper investigates a fatal police shooting in Claremont, N.H. on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Authorities say shots were fired between the State Police SWAT team and a man who had barricaded himself in a Sullivan Street building. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • New Hampshire State Police investigate a fatal police shooting in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, April, 1, 2021. Police responded the night before to a man who had barricaded himself in a building on Sullivan Street. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • A New Hampshire State Police trooper exits a building where a Claremont-area man was killed in a police shooting on Wednesday night in Claremont, N.H. on Thursday, April, 1, 2021. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Monitor staff
Published: 2/5/2022 4:37:21 PM
Modified: 2/5/2022 4:35:45 PM

Hours before Jeffrey Ely was shot and killed by a SWAT team in March 2021, Claremont Police Department responded to a call that he was having a mental health crisis.

Ely told officers he was hearing voices from inanimate objects and that the voices were harassing and monitoring him. Several months after Ely’s death, a 144-page report released by the Attorney General’s office picked apart the details from that day— it recounted dialogue, reconstructed floor plans of the compound, and reviewed autopsy reports.

But to Sen. Bob Giuda, a Republican from Warren, the report left many questions unanswered, especially about the hours leading up to the fatal event.

“Why didn’t the local police department take this man into custody when they responded four hours before?” he wondered.

Mental health advocates say the state has a gap in its review process of fatal shootings. The Attorney General is tasked with determining whether a police officer should be criminally prosecuted based on a patchwork of state and federal laws.

“At the end of the day, we have in our state nothing that looks at the aftermath of one of these shootings to determine whether it was actually necessary,” Giuda said.

Last week, Giuda presented a bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee that could help fill in that gap and answer what could have been done differently. The legislation would create a study committee to consider the merits of a mental health review board.

The board would review video, audio and paper documents surrounding fatal encounters and make policy recommendations to reduce the number of people with mental illness that are killed by police. As proposed, the board’s findings would be confidential and could not be used for civil action or prosecution against the office.

“The purpose of this is to investigate the long chain of events that happens before the point of intervention,” Giuda said.

The study committee would include members from law enforcement, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Brain Injury Association, and the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

One of New Hampshire’s bordering states has already implemented a similar review committee.

Maine’s governor signed a bill in 2019 that established a panel of public members, mental health professionals, and law enforcement to review use of force cases.

During the first meeting in Dec. 2020, the 15-person panel reviewed a 2017 case in which a patrol officer shot and severely hurt an armed man in the throes of a mental health crisis. The shooting had already been deemed justified by the Maine Attorney General’s office, which has made the same determination in every shooting since the 1990s, the Bangor Daily News reported.

The group issued several recommendations to avoid future shootings, including one that advised rural police departments to regularly communicate about how to effectively control mental crises.

The structure of the committee also has precedent in New Hampshire. The state has a child fatality review committee and a domestic violence fatality review committee that evaluate the details surrounding sudden deaths, and suggest actions to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Police shootings involving those with a mental illness is a well-documented problem in New Hampshire.

A Monitor investigation from 2021 found that more than 60% of people killed by police in the last decade had a mental illness. Mental health advocates say this represents a breakdown of the state’s mental health system, which has failed to help people before they reach a point of crisis.

In the absence of a sufficient number of inpatient psychiatric treatment beds and robust community resources, police are often tasked with helping people with mental illness, the investigation found.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Franklin police chief David Goldstein said he supports the underpinnings of the bill but has concerns about its current language. Though the proposed review board would evaluate fatal shootings confidentially, Goldstein said he worries confidentiality could be back-tracked by future legislators.

“We do not oppose the establishment of a well-heeled body of individuals to study … how to identify and improve the relationship between law enforcement mental health issues,” he said. “My concern here is later on after I’ve retired, after some in this room have retired. What happens with the next legislative body that comes up and says we’re going to change that?”

To some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill didn’t go far enough. Becky Whitley, a Concord Democrat, asked why the bill doesn’t create the mental health review board, instead of adding an intermediary study committee.

“I initially wanted to do it, but when you start talking to the police officers, they’re very, very worried,” Giuda said. “I’m sure it’s a compelling need, but I don’t want to alienate the folks that are going to be out there on the job.”

Police mental healthtraining

In addition to creating a study committee, the bill would also allocate $3.9 million to send one police officer from each municipality to crisis intervention team training, a program designed to teach first responders how to handle mental health emergencies.

Participants in this program typically spend a week studying symptoms, listening to speakers with mental illness, and learning verbal techniques to calm escalating situations.

Some mental health advocacy groups don’t believe that police should be involved in fixing a problem that is primarily a failure of the healthcare system.

Geoffrey Melada, a spokesperson for the national nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, said training police how to handle someone in crisis is intervening far too late in someone’s mental decline.

“We do not believe that there is a police solution to this problem, that there is a certain amount of training that’s going to make it appropriate or helpful to send the police,” he said. “They require that a person with severe mental illness deteriorate to the point that the police are sent.”

Dawna Schaub, the mother of a man shot and killed by police while in a mental health crisis, has called for changes to involuntary commitment laws in the mental health system.

Giuda said mental health policies would be evaluated by the mental health review board but that police education offers concrete ways to immediately improve the problem.

“We could commit every penny we ever had of revenue to solve the mental health crisis: it’s not going to do it,” he said. “Mental health issues will be with us forever.”

Several hundred local and state police have been CIT trained to date. However, these trained officers are disproportionately from larger departments that can afford to lose officers for a week-long training.

Even with funding available, Goldstein said there may be pushback from some police departments.

“There are still officers and police chiefs out there that don’t believe in this,” he said. ” We’re looking at this as if it’s going to be a panacea and everybody’s going to buy in, and that’s not true.”

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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