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Call 911 or not? Families wonder after police shooting of suicidal Overland Park teen
Kansas City Star - 2/4/2018
Feb. 04--Overland Park parents Leyla and Jim McMullen called 911 one night last winter with desperate hope.
They wanted police to help save their son from suicide.
They recognized the same desperation when they read about the 911 call the night that 17-year-old John Albers was fatally shot by a responding Overland Park police officer last month.
"Who can you call?" McMullen wondered aloud this week, shaken again by how high-stakes interventions by officers can go wrong.
This week the McMullens and other families, along with mental health specialists and police officers interviewed by The Star, re-examined an imperfect safety net that struggles to save young lives in peril -- and took stock of the increasing burden on police officers.
The police who rushed to Albers' home Jan. 20 were sped by the dispatcher's description of a serious suicide threat that the 911 caller had seen on FaceTime. Albers had taken pills, was drinking heavily and was going to stab himself.
Then the garage door opened on the gathering officers and Albers drove out in a vehicle "rapidly toward one of the responding officers," police said. The officer fired, killing the teenager. The shooting is under investigation.
Jim McMullen doesn't know the Albers family, but he imagines their Overland Park home as much like his, where he sat this week in the living room across the coffee table from his 18-year-old son, David.
It was nearly 14 months ago that the McMullens made their desperate 911 call. David, who was 17 then like Albers, raged out of control, busting a wall, breaking things, screaming that he was going to toss himself with a rope around his neck from the second floor bannister above where they now sat.
The officers who arrived did not calm him. Nor, after many attempts by phone, could the police find an available psychiatric juvenile hospital bed to take him.
Instead police handcuffed David and delivered him to the juvenile detention center on a criminal charge of destruction of property.
"Our experience was disastrous," the father said.
Jim McMullen knows John Albers' life held promise. He knows, he said, that if the Blue Valley Northwest High School teen could have survived, things could change.
He knows this because he sees his own son.
"It could easily have been me," David McMullen said, finishing his father's thought when his voice broke.
The question persists with the McMullens and in the reactive sentiment many others have shared in social media after Albers' death: Who do you call?
Because if it isn't the police, McMullens said, "I don't have a clue."
Many officers trained for crises
Do call 911.
That's the answer, experts say, if a suicidal person is in danger, or is a danger to you or anyone else.
Suicide hotlines can help, but their specialists look for signs of potential violence, and they will make the 911 call if you don't.
Police remain the point persons when lives are threatened, said Kiersten Adkins, executive director of the Olathe non-profit support organization for families, Pathway to Hope.
Many police are trained better than ever to de-escalate mental health crises, she said, but they are working in a system that's an underfunded mess.
"You want someone to come help you when your kid's in crisis," Adkins said. "You want someone to fix it. But it might not happen. There are not any right answers. It's frustrating."
Police too often are pressed with bad options, she said.
"Their job is to stop a threat," she said. "That's why you call them."
But it hurts if your child ends up arrested, Adkins said. "You cry your eyes out. It's never a good experience."
The Overland Park Police Department currently has 118 of its 225 officers certified with the 40 hours of CIT training -- Crisis Intervention Teams -- with special skills in de-escalating and diffusing dangerous mental health situations, spokesman Officer John Lacy said.
There were CIT-trained officers responding to the scene where Albers was killed, he said. It is unclear, however, with the shooting under investigation, if the officers had an opportunity to contact Albers.
Many area police departments, along with Overland Park, have been emphasizing CIT training, typically getting around 40 percent of their officers certified.
A growing mental health crisis has forced police to become partners with strained social service networks in mental illness, said Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center.
Missouri and Kansas suffer high suicide rates that are increasing, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
More than 1,000 people kill themselves each year in Missouri, and some 500 in Kansas. Missouri's rate, at 18.3 suicides per 100,000 population is the 13th highest in the nation. Kansas, with 17.9 per 100,000, ranks 15th.
The fastest rising numbers in recent years have been in the 15-to-24 age range. Within two days of each other in late January, Shawnee Mission Northwest High School suffered two suicides.
Stress is falling heavier on youths, a lot of it fueled by social media, convincing crisis workers that "no doubt there is a trend," DeWeese said.
Meanwhile, 13 to 15 Johnson County youths are typically waiting for bed space at one of the state's psychiatric residential treatment facilities, with waits as long as 90 days, he said.
Police come face-to-face with the dangerous trend, said Cpl. Ken Whiteside, the CIT coordinator for the Leawood Police Department.
The number of suicide threat calls in Leawood from 2016 to 2017 rose from 16 to 22. The number of calls to check on the welfare of a person -- the majority of which are mental health related -- rose from 244 to 353.
The CIT training equips officers with strategies to calm someone in mental distress, and that includes seeking out as much important information as they can from family or friends also at the scene, Whiteside said.
"But there are so many variables" with each new encounter and few simple matches to mental health services, he said. "You can't say this is how it should go," Whiteside said. "Things go awry."
A juvenile psychiatric hospital bed is the first choice officers seek for youth in serious distress, said Capt. Wade Borchers, Lenexa's CIT police coordinator. They will work with the Johnson County Mental Health Center staff or call hospitals directly. Sometimes, when a bed isn't available, they will take a youth to a local hospital emergency room.
The juvenile detention center, he and other CIT specialists said, is only a last resort. And the detention center also works to move teens out to an appropriate setting for help.
"We don't want them penetrating the system any farther than they need to," the detention center's director, Ted Jester, said. "We get them mental health help as soon as we can and get the right treatment placement."
The night of his arrest, David McMullen was taken from the detention center for a temporary stay in the emergency room at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, his father said.
There, Jim McMullen watched the struggle continue, as hospital staff scoured the area for possibilities, finding nothing closer than Topeka.
McMullen also witnessed what a good, de-escalating officer can do. The Olathe officer that took David McMullen from the detention center to the emergency room was finally able to calm the teenager down.
"They walked into the emergency room like friends," the father said.
Johnson County's director of corrections, Robert Sullivan Jr., wants a youth crisis center. A 24-hour space where police can deliver teens in a mental health crisis where they will be safe while staff work with caseworkers and families to find the right bed for them.
Such centers have been established for adults in recent years -- like Kansas City's Assessment and Triage Center, and Rainbow Services, Inc., in Kansas City, Kan.
"It would be an immediate help to this population," he said.
CIT officers, like Whiteside in Leawood, want more opportunities to meet with families coping with mental health issues "before the code red call comes ... before the lights and sirens."
Leawood is one of several departments -- Kansas City is another -- that has CIT officers make rounds with a licensed mental health professional caseworker to make calls on individuals and families that are at risk of a crisis.
They want people to be able to trust the responders behind a 911 call. They share tips that will help, telling families to make sure the dispatcher understands it's a mental health crisis. Specifically ask for a CIT officer, they say. Detail important case history.
The McMullens hope they can continue on their healing path, and that other families will be saved from misfortune and tragedy.
David McMullen thinks back over the rough times that followed the night of the 911 call, and how his mindset finally began to shift. He recalls how two summer months at the Anasazi Troubled Teen Wilderness Treatment Center strengthened him, and how last fall he was able to get a job in a field he loves -- restaurants -- and keep it.
"Sometimes things just click," Jim McMullen said. And then moments come like the day last October when the family celebrated his mother's birthday at the restaurant where David McMullen worked.
The manager came to the table to tell them of the wonderful work David was doing. McMullen and his wife came away with a burst of hope.
All these things the father and son relished there in their living room, with David talking of a culinary career -- a future.
"The human heart and the human mind don't take you on a straight line in life," Jim McMullen said.
Joe Robertson: 816-234-4789, @robertsonkcstar
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