Shooting death becomes a plea for training — (Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinal)

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Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinal

By MEG KISSINGER  mkissinger@journalsentinel.com

Posted: Nov. 21, 2004

Police who spot mental illness can avoid crises

They warned that something like this would happen. But no one imagined that it would come so soon.

When more than 200 law and health professionals gathered in late August to decide how to best help people in Milwaukee with mental illness, the top priority was clear: Teach the police how to better handle people in a crisis, or something horrible will happen.

Less than two weeks later, it did.

Michael Blucher, an 18-year-old roofer suffering from schizophrenia, was shot to death by police. Tommy Wilson, the officer who killed Blucher, was so overcome with grief at what had happened that he collapsed on the ground and had to be helped back to his squad car.

An inquest begins today into Blucher’s death, as mental health advocates seethe in frustration that their warnings did nothing to prevent this.

“This is a perfect example of a disaster that could have been avoided and should have been avoided,” said Tom Hlavacek, chairman of the Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force.

Blucher’s death is the latest in a series of events that convinces Hlavacek and others that drastic changes need to be made in the Milwaukee area regarding how the police deal with people in mental health crises. Sandy Pasch, president of NAMI of Greater Milwaukee, an advocacy group for people with mental illness and their families, has written letters to Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee Police Chief Nannette Hegerty urging them to step up efforts to better train police.

“It is imperative in light of this recent death,” Pasch said.

That was in mid-October. So far, she has not heard back from either of them, Pasch said.

The task force is hoping that Milwaukee can learn from the model designed by the Memphis (Tenn.) Police Department after a similar situation there 18 years ago. Today, Memphis has nearly a quarter of its force specially trained in mental health issues and certified in a program known as Crisis Intervention Training. The Memphis model has attracted national and international attention. A contingent of Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force members is planning to go there some time in the next several weeks.

Milwaukee police readily acknowledge the need for more training. In focus group discussions with task force members, police said they were frustrated at not knowing how to deal with some cases involving people with mental illness.

The Blucher case is a classic example of how things can go terribly wrong in a hurry, people familiar with the case say.

Loved video games

Blucher weighed more than 300 pounds, but in his mind, he was more like a little child.

He had a baby face – plump, pink cheeks and soft blue eyes. His IQ was measured at low average intelligence, and he had the reading ability of a fourth-grader. He loved to play video games, especially Dragonball Z, a simulated battle between supersonic warriors. On Sept. 5, the night he was killed, Blucher was wearing a Cosby Kids cartoon T-shirt.

When his mother, Corrine Bielinski, thinks about this, she starts to sob.

“He was a little boy trapped in a man’s body,” she said between gulps.

Her son, who suffered from depression since he was 6 years old, dropped out of school midway through sixth grade because he was sick of being teased. In the last few years, Blucher had grown so distant and withdrawn that his doctors began treating him for schizophrenia, a psychiatric condition marked by hallucinations and detachment from reality. He was taking Zoloft, an anti-depressant, and Geodon, an anti-hallucinogen.

But in the last few months, things were starting to turn around for Blucher, his mother said. He was going out more with friends and working a little as a roofer. He had just bought a car and was learning to drive.

Blucher was at a friend’s house that night when he and the friend’s 14-year-old sister got into an argument. It is unclear who pulled out the knives first, but, eventually, Blucher grabbed a samurai sword from the wall and hit the girl in the head.

Wilson, the police officer, was cruising nearby when the call came in. Normally, more than one police officer would be assigned to such a volatile situation. But for some reason, Wilson, who has been on the force for three years and has not had any specialized training in mental health, was alone when he pulled up to the house. By the time he got there, the place was utter chaos.

The 14-year-old girl was lying on the grass, bleeding from a gash to her head, and slipping in and out of consciousness. Blucher was in the front of the house, screaming, begging someone to shoot him, as he waved two knives in his hands. He refused to go back into the kitchen, as Wilson had repeatedly ordered him to do.

Looking back on it now, Blucher’s mother figures her son must have been petrified. The girl’s parents were inside, having just returned home from a nearby bar, and they were frantic at the sight of their bleeding daughter. They ran in the house to confront Blucher.

The girl’s mother had slashed Blucher’s hands, and she was screaming that she was going to kill him. The girl’s father had a gun and had fired it at the wall.

Wilson immediately called for backup.

“Michael must have been so scared,” Blucher’s mother said.

Wilson tried to contain Blucher until backup arrived but, as Blucher lunged toward Wilson, the police officer fired three bullets into Blucher’s chest.

Corrine Bielinski insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral.

“I want the whole world to see what they did to my boy,” she said.

Bielinski and her husband, Monroe, both have schizophrenia. She says she hopes the inquest will shine a light on the need for more police training.

“I feel sorry for that officer that killed Michael,” Corrine Bielinski said. “He shouldn’t have been the only one there that night. That was not right.”

Wilson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Training in Memphis

A recent ride-along with specially trained Memphis police officers underscores the differences in how police there approach a case involving a mentally ill person. Officers volunteer for the program there and undergo a 40-hour training course with regular refresher classes.

In Milwaukee, police officers last received mental health training five years ago. That was a two-hour class. Since then, nearly one-third of the force has turned over. So none of the officers hired since then – including Wilson – have had specialized mental health training.

In Memphis, police d
ispatchers are trained to ask whether the person in crisis is on medication, and they include that information in their call for help. If the case is suspected to involve someone with mental illness, a specially trained officer is dispatched, along with a minimum of two backup squads.

“We don’t want any surprises,” said Sam Cochran, the lieutenant in charge of the Memphis program.

Police officers who deal with the public know that, while most people with mental illness are not inherently dangerous, a situation can grow violent in a hurry. When Memphis officer Lechelle Brown arrived at a group home for mentally ill adults in her district one morning earlier this fall, she found Mary, a 27-year-old woman, refusing to take her medication and threatening to cut herself with a knife and to kill the nurse on duty.

“Now, Mary, you know how much better you feel when you take that pill,” Brown said. “You remember when I was here last week, and what a nice talk you and I had?”

Minutes later, Mary calmed down and agreed to take her pill.

“Can you give me a big smile so I know you feel OK?” the officer said as the crisis passed.

Brown volunteered for the program because some of her family members have depression, and she knows how a little common sense and understanding can make a tense situation dissolve.

“In the old days, they might have hogtied Mary and hauled her downtown,” Brown said. “This way makes a whole lot more sense. A lot of the time they just want someone to listen to them.”

Since the Memphis program was founded, the number of police deaths involving mental health patients has dropped precipitously, Cochran said.

“I’m not saying we don’t have our problems, but things are much, much better than they had been,” he said.

Looking at costs

Cost estimates vary on what it would take to put such a plan in place here. In Memphis, all the training is donated by mental health care professionals. Officers are given $50 more each month, a total Cochran waves away as insignificant. But Hlavacek, the Milwaukee task force director, says police here are leery of the cost and the potentially complicated matters of scheduling.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Hlavacek said.

Milwaukee police say dealing with people with mental illness is one of the most frustrating and time-consuming parts of their jobs.

Frequently they are called on to take people in crisis to the county’s Mental Health Complex, only to be made to wait several hours before doctors can attend to them. The problem has grown significantly worse in the past few years as the county cuts back the number of mental health care beds and private hospitals cut back their programs, too.

Police often see the most chronic mental patients again and again, officers in the task force focus groups said.

“We can become cynical,” one officer said.

Added another: “We have a very intolerant public and very few resources to hook people up to.”

In the aftermath of the Blucher death, the police administration has agreed to offer four hours of training for each of the force’s 2,000 officers, beginning in January.

“That’s a nice start, but it’s not enough,” said Lyn Malofsky, a user of mental health services who conducted the training sessions for police five years ago, the last time the training was offered, and plans to be part of the January sessions. “We really need to do more than this.”

Mike Massa, the Milwaukee police lieutenant who trains recruits on mental health law, says more training can only help police.

“We’re not just out there catching bad guys,” Massa said. “More often, we are dealing with people who have some serious issues. It’s one of the most important parts of our job.”

Meg Kissinger reported from Milwaukee and Memphis, Tenn.