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By working with the NAACP of Battle Creek for the last three years, the City of Battle Creek – and Battle Creek Police Department in particular – are pleased with the progress and successes we’ve reached, including more positive police contacts with individuals and at community events, and relationships developed between officers and neighbors.
While celebrating those successes, police recognize the continued need to learn and improve, and are discussing current challenges related to the national mental health crisis, and the importance of ongoing Crisis Intervention Team training to help police react to individuals struggling with mental illness.
Officers recently experienced such an incident, in which an officer struck a man with a recorded mental disability, resulting in a civil rights complaint against the BCPD. The city’s response was submitted before the Dec. 22 deadline to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
The incident took place at approximately 10:13 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19, when a then-25-year-old man approached and spoke to Corporal James Bailey and Officers Ryan O’Connell and Jeffrey Johnson, who were starting the night shift, and Officers Nathaniel Hopkins and Isaac Yonkers, who were returning to the station from the afternoon shift. All were in the parking area on the north side of the police station.
The man displayed irregular and erratic behavior, and became agitated when officers indicated they had to leave on a suicidal subject call. The man, who had earlier placed his own backpack on the ground, kicked it, and raised his fists, taking an aggressive stance, despite attempts to verbally de-escalate the situation. As an officer approached the man, intending to detain him and pat him down, the man struck him in the face with a closed fist. The two struggled, falling to the ground, when the officer’s head struck the police station’s brick wall. The officers first used lesser-impact tactics to restrain the man, with knee strikes, then pepper spray, then a taser, but these efforts were unsuccessful.
As the officer and the man struggled on the ground, the officer felt a tug on his duty belt and saw the man grabbing his keys, which were next to his service weapon. In response, the officer struck the man one time in the face, with a closed fist, allowing others to restrain the man and place handcuffs on him. The man continued to struggle, and officers used a bodily restraint device (the body wrap) to maintain control, securing his arms and legs, with his body in an upright position.
LifeCare Ambulance was called, and staff evaluated the man. The BCPD transported him to Bronson Battle Creek Hospital, where he was treated and released within a couple of hours. The BCPD then transported him to the Calhoun County Jail, where he was charged with five counts of resisting and obstructing police. The man’s attorney requested that a forensic examination be completed to determine the man’s mental status at the time of the incident, as well as his capacity to assist in his defense.
Since the incident occurred, the BCPD completed a month-long internal investigation, including a three-year look back into reports of the department’s interactions with individuals displaying signs of mental illness or instability. The Michigan State Police will review the entire incident, with an emphasis on critiquing the appropriateness of the force used by the officers.
During the investigation, it was discovered that a new officer, currently in the BCPD training program, became aware of a mental health order issued by the court. The officer did not disclose this information to other officers, failing to recognize the meaning of the order.
The officer who failed to disclose the court order was sanctioned, as were officers who failed to activate their in-car microphones during the incident. Officers are required to do so when in contact with the public, unless there is an exigent circumstance. Police officials believe officers should have activated their microphones during this incident.
Since the incident occurred, city officials have discussed the issue at length, and shared information with local NAACP of Battle Creek chapter President Carey Whitfield and NAACP members. While the civil rights complaint against the BCPD alleges that the man’s race is a concern, city officials believe the incident occurred as a result of the man’s behavior, and unrelated to his race.
“While we have disagreed during these meetings, the Battle Creek Police Department and NAACP continue to work together and discuss these issues, and move forward toward resolution,” said BCPD Chief Jim Blocker.
Law enforcement officials must decide on a daily basis how best to handle erratic behavior, as displayed during this incident. The BCPD began working with Summit Pointe in 2014 to learn the best courses of action when interacting with mentally ill individuals; Summit Pointe representatives currently spend several hours each week working at the Police Department, to assist directly with these issues.
This fall, for the first time, officers at the BCPD and neighboring law enforcement agencies attended Crisis Intervention Team training, in partnership with Summit Pointe, which teaches officers how to best help someone in a mental health crisis. It teaches techniques to diffuse potentially violent situations with those in mental health crisis, including verbal communication that can convince a person to receive help, and improve safety of all involved.
While it is the goal of law enforcement to diffuse such situations, police also recognize that, at times, they must implement use of force. CIT training techniques are an important tool for officers, but every incident is unique, and may require a different response.
“This unfortunate incident reminds us all of the need to better understand how to interact with those vulnerable individuals suffering from mental incapacitation,” Blocker said. “The Battle Creek Police Department will continue our commitment to working with Summit Pointe and training our officers with relevant and realistic training so that we can do this in the most respectful and effective way possible, and advance our community policing goals.”