Mentally ill suspects: Treatment or jail time? Good Job Brevard County Law Enforcement

I would like to congratulate Deputy Chief Blackledge from the Palm Bay Police Department and all the law enforcement officials in Brevard county for helping mentally ill suspects and understanding that there is more to the situation then making a bad choice.

As a man who deals with teen issues, families and all the surrounding problems crime and bad choices have on EVERYONE involved, it is nice to read a positive article on how law enforcement is helping people and not being portrayed as the enemy.

I have the pleasure of working with Deputy Chief Blackledge on a project and can say with total confidence his heart is in the right place and his knowledge of law enforcement is second to none.

When I speak around the country it pains me to hear the negative comments about law enforcement. One of the topics Chief Blackledge and I discussed is the us against them mentality the public has with law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are public servants here to help and protect the public. Society needs to get back to being a partner with law enforcement and not seeing them as the enemy.

How a police department is viewed is in direct correlation with the leadership of that department. The vast majority of people in Brevard county do respect and help law enforcement. I give the credit to our local chiefs of police and sheriff.  Knowing Sheriff Parker, Chief Muldoon, Chief Pearson, Chief Krueger and other leaders of various police agencies in Brevard county I can say their hearts and souls are in the communities they serve.

The next time you look at your police agency, look at the positives and not the negatives. Don’t judge the agency on the negative you might read in the local papers, judge them on the positives you DON’T read. Remember there are two sides to all stories. Good and bad.

Good job Brevard county.

Larry Lawton

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Written by:  Matt Badolato | For FLORIDA TODAY

Police officers often are called to scenes without knowing what they will encounter. Their lives can depend on how well they communicate and relate to people experiencing a crisis.

Enter CIT.   Crisis Intervention Training is being embraced by Brevard County law enforcement, a program that aims to increase awareness among the first responders in crisis situations about mental illness.

One of the program’s main goals is to prevent officers from arresting those who would benefit more from mental health treatment than from sitting behind bars.

“It’s an emotionally impacting program,” said John Blackledge, deputy chief for the Palm Bay Police, who along with other law enforcement leaders brought the program into Brevard in 2001. The Palm Bay Police Department picked it up first, then the Brevard County Sherriff’s Office in 2005, before Brevard Community College’s Institute of Public Safety in Melbourne was designated as the program’s home base in 2009.

“It can be frustrating for officers who know incarceration isn’t going to help some people guilty of a misdemeanor,” Blackledge said. “They may not have enough cause to Baker Act them, but they’ve got nowhere else to put them but in jail.”

Blackledge teaches CIT at BCC. His pupils learn techniques for mental illness crisis recognition, intervention and resolution.

But his students come from more than just law enforcement. First responders to crisis situations involving the mentally ill can be emergency medical personnel, corrections officers and firefighters.

The 40-hour program is an intense course on interventions with the mentally ill, responding to different disabilities and recognizing suicide or substance abuse. Participants are shown the perspective of what it’s like to live with mental illness and to be a family member of someone who is mentally ill. They learn about various illnesses and their symptoms, how substance use often accompanies a mental illness and the treatments available.

Essentially, officers learn when an offender needs treatment or jail time, “We need to break the cycle of arresting people with mental illnesses for low-level crimes, then moving them from jail to the hospitals and back on the streets,” said Blackledge, who has worked on the force for 37 years. “It used to be, if you came at me with a knife, I had no other alternative but to use force. Now, we want to spread education of the illnesses to prevent fatal encounters.”

But the program — a blend of psychology, science, medicine and communication — isn’t for everyone, Blackledge said.

“It’s not training. It’s a program and not everyone has the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed in a crisis situation,” Blackledge said. “Some people are just better negotiators.”

As social services are cut back, law enforcement officers are wearing different hats as responsibilities fall on them.

“Since the state has been shutting down psychiatric hospitals and other institutions for the treatment of mental illness, these people have nowhere to go but back on the streets,” said Col. Greg Brown of the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Office.

The Florida Partners in Crisis, a grassroots organization, is working to unite criminal justice officials, government leaders, health care professionals and concerned citizens in an all-inclusive approach to tackle this statewide issue.

“A network of awareness is necessary,” said Brown. “We’re trying to bring political powers together toward a common goal.”

As vice chairman of Partners, Brown said he wants crimes treated accordingly and for officers to posses the knowledge to know when a crime or situation is the result of a mental illness.

At a recent fundraiser for Florida Partners in Crisis at the Port Malabar Rifle and Pistol Club in Palm Bay, Brown also discussed the importance of funding for the program and for other initiatives directed toward an alternative to the criminal justice system for offenders with mental illnesses.

“We’ve got a long way to go to achieve a comprehensive approach to this,” said Blackledge. “It’s important to spread this knowledge beyond the deputy level and to other officials.”