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The Blue Brief: Mental Health Episodes

I have been bestowed an honor that is likely higher than any other in the whole of law enforcement.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve entertained dreams of going to the FBI National Academy or studying at Northwestern.

Officer writing a police report

I’ve even received accolades for actions during investigations or critical incidents throughout my career.

These all pale in comparison, however, to being dubbed the Intergalactic Vizier of All Police.

Judge Dredd
I’m not sure what that position would look like, but Judge Dredd seemed a good fit.

The Earth Mother

The woman who bestowed this distinction upon me always interacted under her alter-ego, Karendolyn.   

She was a true nature lover, a modern-day druidess in flowing, natural clothes. These were often adorned with feathers and leaves. Around her forehead, she wore real flowers.

Druidess
Kinda of like this…

Karendolyn regularly ran afoul of people who did not understand her actions. She would show up at public locations and conduct druidic ceremonies, dancing and swaying about.

This made people uncomfortable, but she was rarely any kind of threat. 

A roadkill bear carcass in your car — a car filled with woven sticks and pine needles on the inside, decked out to look like a bird’s nest — can lend itself to some trouble, though.

Also, failing to leave an area by the lawful owner yield interactions with police.  This is where our paths collided.

First Impressions

The first time I met Karendolyn was over a minor traffic offense. I stopped her and soon realized this was far from the average contact.

The inside of the car would make Big Bird feel right at home, and the occasional casted enchantments she uttered (my Druidic was rusty) were none-too-subtle clues.

Big Bird Nest
Like this, minus the big, yellow bird

Let me tell you; it doesn’t take long for a seasoned cop to detect mental illness.

Our reactions back in the 1990s were often to try and disengage as quickly as possible, lest things escalate.

We had no real training on the issue other than the use of force. And when your only tool is a hammer, many things look like a nail.

But I could sense inside she was a good person. I treated her with respect, gave her a verbal warning, and sent her on her way. 

Sadly, her interactions with law enforcement were rarely that simple or that kind. 

She was surprised at my manner and asked my name. After I told her Deputy Curtis, she called me “Deputy Courtesy.”

That set the tone for all our other meetings…which were many. 

It also set a precedent for me. 

Any time someone acted outside the norm, I would get the call.

The Voices — Training to Respond

Joel was one of the senior instructors at my training, an old cop built like a fireplug. He had seen and done everything.

When it came time to work on arrest control scenarios, if Joel was present, it would be a fight. 

Fight

This was made completely clear to all of us who served as backup for the initial officers in their scenarios.

Eventually, it was my turn as primary response. I was dispatched to a man “hearing voices.”

When I walked into the room, I saw Joel.

He was marvelous, pacing back and forth, whispering to himself, telling me about the messages he received that no one else could hear.

Then he told me he had seen a car parked out front that surveilling him.

I picked up on the paranoid delusion. Instead of fighting him, maybe I could work with it, though I had backup staged outside ready to help.

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” -Joseph Heller

Calmly, I offered to take him to a place that understood – one that would help him with the voices and the surveillance.

He was hesitant to trust me.

I told him no one would dare mess with us while I was wearing a badge and gun. This logic appealed to him.

He tentatively agreed and stepped toward me. 

As we walked to the door together, I told him one last idea to sell the ruse.

I offered to put him in handcuffs so that if the lurking stalkers were out there watching, they would get the impression I arrested him. Thus, they’d leave him alone.

Handcuffs
(Photo: Pixabay)

Once again, this seemed to fit his fears and was a logical solution.

When I walked out with him in custody, not bloodied or bruised, everyone’s eyes bugged, and mouths gaped. Joel praised me up and down, talking about how well I had done not to immediately go “hands-on.”

He liked that I took time to understand the situation and develop an alternative solution.

I got a pretty big head from his accolades, and it lasted until building clearing training when I backlit someone. 

That profanity-riddled, tongue-lashing still echoes in my head today. Such is police work. 

Back to the Druidess

Many years later, the biggest service I provided Karendolyn was intervening when things started to escalate in another contact.

At a local park, she frightened some people with her actions. Another agency responded, and a less patient officer told her to leave. 

She retreated into the back seat of her car. When the officer reached for her, she grabbed a deer antler.

Antler
Antlers = pokey weapon

I remember the rush that went through me: proxemics, resisting lawful commands, arguably lethal threat…So, I offered to help the officer, fearing a shooting if I didn’t intervene.

I leaned in the car and reminded Karendolyn that I was Deputy Courtesy.

Her fearful stance relaxed a bit, the antler lowered, and the smiling nymph reappeared.

Remembering the scenario with Joel, I offered to help her out and explained the situation to her. I told her I wanted to give her a ride to get her some help.

Obi Wan Patience
Patience, when tactically permissible, is a cop’s ally on mental health calls.

I even told her I did not trust the other officer very much, and felt she would be safer with me.

Looking out the back window at the frowning officer, she readily agreed.

Again, I told her for her safety; I would need to handcuff her.

She trusted me, and it was everything.

I put her in the car, and we sang songs together all the way to the jail.

Time Marches On

It was after that close call, I saw Karendolyn again, and she dubbed me the Intergalactic Vizier of all Police. 

She gave me sage from the local bush and a crystal that was a symbol of my office — a crystal I still have some 22 years later.

I recalled the single time I saw her when she was not advocating for the Earth Mother. 

It was in a different town, and she was walking out of a store, wearing a nice blouse and a business skirt that clearly was part of a suit. 

Her hair was well-coifed and devoid of the natural trappings I was used to. More unbelievably, she was wearing shoes! She was vibrant and professional.

She smiled awkwardly, recognizing me, and put her head down as though embarrassed.

The thing that haunted me was the physical changes in her face.

Gone was the manic smile, the dancing, mischievous light in her eyes. The face did not remotely look the same. 

In 2000 I shook things up and left law enforcement. I moved, went back to school, and got an associate’s degree in criminal justice.

I believe education contributes to making better officers.

Seven years later, I returned to law enforcement as a sergeant and quickly made lieutenant.

I was saddened to learn that while I was on sabbatical, Karendolyn passed away.

To this day, I don’t know the specific details of her death, but I have my suspicions.

After her passing, I lamented law enforcement’s failing, my own failing.

This is a difficult lesson every first responder eventually learns — you cannot help them all.

There is a form of guilt that comes when you fall short of the mark, based on a root caring for other folks and a desire to help make things better.

It is my belief; most cops are built this way.

To this day, I struggle with not being able to help her, but the tools available to law enforcement were ill-suited to address her needs. 

Conclusion

I wanted to share some of the mental health crises I’ve encountered in the field to set the stage for us to dive more into the topic of mental health.

More importantly, in future articles, I want to explore how my profession got so involved with it over the last 30 to 40 years.

Police Car Lights

So, stay tuned!

Like The Blue Brief or have a question about policing? Let us know in the comments below! To get to know Sean, make sure you check out his Introduction and also read his tips on How To Survive a Carjacking.

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16 Leave a Reply

  • Jacob

    Hey Sean,

    I appreciate the open dialogue. I'm more of a libertarian lefty guy, I try to keep brushed up on the world of politics, political groups like Antifascist Action (that's Antifa's full name in case anyone reading didn't know what it meant) and the explosion of protests around the world over the last few years.

    With all this research, I've had a problem; for every bit of evidence like videos and survey statistics that show the vast majority of protestors being peaceful, even videos on the ground of protestors stopping other protestors from starting violence, there's still plenty of footage of fires being started, random individuals being surrounded by protestors when they're trying to just leave the area, etc., and while I can certainly chalk some of it up to some folks just using the protests and movements as an excuse to be violent, I can't quite square the data yet.

    All this leads to one specific topic I wanted to hear your thoughts on: the agent provocateur. An individual, whether acting alone, from a rival political group, or even an undercover officer, infiltrating a protest with the intent of riling the crowd and starting violence to give the police on scene a justification for shutting down the entire protest. There was a rather famous example in 2014 during the protests surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

    (Edit: I can't link the news article, PPT doesn't allow URLs in comments)

    In all your years on the force, have you come across it yourself? Seen it in use by other departments, or even your own? I don't mean to insinuate any sort of accusation, I just know that it is a topic that, for as widespread as the tactic seems to be, there's relatively little hard evidence about when and where it has been used, since that requires both identifying a provocateur and having the evidence that they were indeed trying to start violence.

    Thank you for reading my lengthy post, your service and perspective is appreciated.

    May 1, 2021 5:24 am
    • Sean Curtis

      Jacob, love the icon, great movie!

      It's interesting, and I will likely get to this topic in the future, but I hadn't witnessed extreme radicalization of the left until the Trump presidency. I'm no poli/sci major but I have seen evidence of Antifa co-opting movements in a recent training presented by the leadership of Portland PD. The group's manipulation was well executed and they drove the narrative with the media until the PD embedded media within the rank and file for perspective.

      Thanks for your thoughts, I'll delve into this more when I write about this subject. Please stop back by.

      May 1, 2021 12:32 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Jacob,

      I realized I didn't address one of your points--no, I have not seen agencies use undercover officers to try and drive any specific agenda other than public safety as a whole. Lately, it seems various areas are like powder kegs waiting to be touched off by the latest incident. If anything, UCs might be used to try and document or detect and prevent criminal activity before it gets to a certain point. I believe most agencies are respectful of the 1st Amendment.

      May 1, 2021 12:42 pm
      • Jacob

        Thanks for the fast response, Sean.

        The thing that's difficult about groups like BLM and Antifa is that they're decentralized; they're not like the KKK or Free Masons or Boy Scouts where they have official chapters and leaders and organized networks. Antifa is mainly a symbol and a set of ideas, there's no vetting process or "leader" of Antifa to decide who gets to join.

        Anyone can take up the symbol and say they're a part of the movement. Any Antifa groups are usually organized at a local level, so it's anyone's guess if they're genuinely trying to peacefully resist fascism or if they're co-opting the symbol and ideas for personal gain. I'd like to believe that most people who take up the Antifa name and symbol are doing it because they believe in the ideas, but only they know their true motivations.

        If you're interested and have an hour to watch, the Youtube channel Philosophy Tube did an extensive breakdown video on what the Antifa philosophy is supposed to be. But again, with no official leaders or group structure, it's anyone's guess what someone's real intentions are.

        May 2, 2021 6:49 am
  • Reid

    Thank you for sharing this. Reminds of the years I spent in state corrections, and how I found the inmates were much more cooperative just because I came across as less antagonistic than a lot of other corrections officers, even some of our supervisors. In the end I left because of increasing instances of my coworker's immaturity and lack of professional behavior putting officers and inmates at risk. A high rate of turnover was producing a much lower-quality corrections workforce in the late 90s.

    April 30, 2021 7:47 am
    • Sean Curtis

      Reid,

      Thanks for your service, I feel corrections folks are often unappreciated.

      You are absolutely right. I used to have a sheriff who said a man going out to look for a fight would always find it. The universe has a way like that. Thanks for your comment!

      May 1, 2021 12:34 pm
  • Bart

    Thanks Sean, great intro article. As a mental health professional who worked for community mental health and in the ER triaging mental health patients, I appreciate your experience and perspective. I found the majority of officers treated those in mental health crisis with the respect and humanity.

    April 29, 2021 4:28 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Bart,

      Man, thanks for what you did! I was an EMT for 8 years and worked on an ambulance service for 5. I've spent too much time in ERs, but I also value the training and experience of the people who work them every day and help get people past that remarkable occurrence that brought them there.

      I'm glad your experience echoed mine, most cops are patient and try to resolve issues peacefully. Another amazing point is how they are often helping out complete strangers when their own lives might be a complete dumpster fire.

      May 1, 2021 12:37 pm
  • John Luke

    Great Article, I appreciate your mindset when challenged with these situations, but also how you also shared how other officers were going to tackle the situation, how it differed from your own. I appreciate this honest look at police work, and would hope the majority of officers would take the more holistic approach.

    April 28, 2021 1:03 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      John,

      There are many pressures that often hold weight in an officer's concerns. If you're going to get chewed out by a supervisor because you have calls pending (basically people who have called for a police response and are waiting because you are tied up) you might be inclined to rush things a bit.

      Specialization--and this will be a huge theme moving forward on this topic--is a place where law enforcement and society both benefit. It it takes 2 hours to talk someone off a ledge with 90% likelihood of success but some other quicker method has a higher potential for failure, shouldn't we lean toward the one that saves more life? Not everyone understands this approach when their house was the one that was broken into and they are wondering why the police are taking so long.

      There are programs out there that are showing promising results though, more on this soon.

      April 28, 2021 7:24 pm
  • dsutton

    Not really a mental heath observation, but here goes: It seems to me that too many cops approach every situation the same way, always. Half turned sideways, hand on the butt of the sidearm, and YELLING at the top of his lungs. I don't hear well, and loud doesn't help. Calm and direct always works. I wonder if this automatic posturing escalates situations that might not have gotten hairy if police officers would just try talking. I'm strongly pro-police, but some of these folks make it tough.

    April 27, 2021 4:15 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      dsutton,

      I would not argue this point as I've seen it too many time myself. For the most part, we are taught to dominate a scene, bring it quickly to control and try to restore order.

      The "how" is often the devil in the details.

      Think about whatever it is that you do (or did) for a living. You can picture people who handle tough challenges in your work with the greatest of ease while others grunt, swear, and strain just to manage a marginal outcome. Law enforcement is no different.

      April 28, 2021 7:18 pm
  • TexasRed

    Thank you for your insight. Very enlightening to hear de-escalation techniques from a PD vet. Hopefully this will open some minds (and hearts) to a broader convoversation.

    April 26, 2021 2:13 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Red,

      In so many ways I feel like we were tasked with a mission we were never trained for. Things have changed now-a-days, thankfully, but law enforcement is almost always, wholly reactive and it takes a long time to effect change.

      April 28, 2021 7:14 pm
  • Jeff

    Good piece, keep them coming

    April 26, 2021 11:52 am
    • Sean Curtis

      Thanks Jeff, I'm going to try.

      April 28, 2021 7:12 pm
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