Responding to the deaths of two people with mental disabilities last month when confronted by police, eight advocacy organizations today cited a “critical and urgent need for uniform and comprehensive training of all police in Rhode Island to ensure a proper response to persons with mental illness, cognitive impairments or developmental disabilities.” The organizations, many of whom deal with or represent on a daily basis individuals with mental illness, made the comments in a letter sent to all police chiefs in the state.

In mid-February, Pawtucket police shot to death Jason Swift after his mother had called for help in getting him to the hospital. She had done this before, apparently without incident, in Massachusetts. Last week, Leonel Farias was killed by East Providence police during an escalating struggle following a request for assistance from his family.

The letter to the police chiefs noted: “Having two people die at the hands of police in Rhode Island in the space of two weeks is cause for great concern. That both victims had mental illness and met their fate only because their families had called the police for help is cause for even greater alarm.” Not seeking to cast blame on the officers involved, the letter instead called the two tragedies “a siren call to police agencies” to address “more thoroughly, and with dispatch and rigor” the issue of properly dealing with people with mental illness.

The letter noted that it “was only recently that the Municipal Police Academy began to provide any training to recruits on this matter,” and that officers need to receive “longer-term, more comprehensive training … through ongoing in-service and specialized skills instruction.” The organizations offered to provide training guidance to departments, pointing to national police training models available on the use of non-confrontational de-escalation techniques when dealing with these situations.

The letter concluded by stating: “The family members of individuals with mental illness must feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling 911 when help for a loved one is needed. In light of these two deaths, that comfort level is very shaky right now… We therefore call on all police departments to work with the community in ensuring that future cries for help do not turn into tears of grief.”

The organizations signing the letter were the RI Council of Community Mental Health Organizations (RICCMHO), the R.I. Disability Law Center, NAMI Rhode Island, Parent Support Network, Mental Health Assn. of R.I., National Assn. of Social Workers R.I. Chapter, Mental Health Consumer Advocates of R.I., and the Rhode Island ACLU. RICCMHO President/CEO Elizabeth V. Earls said today: “Incidents like these are tragedies for everyone – the victim and their families, and the officers and their families, as well.  We need to give our local law enforcement the tools that they need to work effectively and safely in our communities.”