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Michigan first responders aren't properly trained to handle encounters with mentally ill people

DETROIT – In the state of Michigan nearly 50 percent of all inmates have some sort of mental illness and local first responders are coming in contact daily with people who are mentally ill.

The interactions first responders have with people in a mental health crisis can be stressful and sometimes dangerous and experts said they're not properly trained to handle those interactions.

When someone is having a mental health crisis it's often first responders who are called to come in and take control of the situation. If they're not properly trained, that can put both the person and the first responder in danger.

"Law enforcement is becoming more and more responsible with dealing with the mentally ill more than ever before," Dr. Gerald Shiener, a forensic psychiatrist, said.

Schiener, who is an expert on mental health issues, said Michigan's first responders are in a tough situation.

"We've got a bad situation. The state of Michigan closed 18 psychiatric hospitals, including juvenile facilities. There are very few juvenile residential facilities," Schiener said.

The result is that people with mentally illness can end up in jails, homeless, or in confrontations with first responders.

The Defenders revealed body camera video from an Albion police officer that shows the officer punching a teen with special needs who had his hands cuffed behind his back.

"I feel bad for the officers because they don't have the resources to manage really what is a mental health crisis at this point," Local 4's Dr. Frank McGeorge said.

McGeorge works in a local emergency room and at least twice a week he sees a person with mental illness who is out of control. He said when you look at the person as a patient, striking them is never an option.

"In a hospital the idea of physical violence to combat physical violence is not sensible. We don't hit people, that's not the way we respond," McGeorge said.

In the Albion case, the teen is kicking and spitting but there are only two officers at the scene and it ends with an officer punching and pepper-spraying the handcuffed teenager.

Experts said the teen was secured in the car before the trouble was started and should have been taken away immediately. They said trying to negotiate with the teen only aggravated the situation and opening the door was a bad idea.

There is funding available for officers to get training on how to deal with mentally ill people. But the funding is not enough to bring all first responders up to date on the latest and best strategies for encounters with the mentally ill.

There are no mandatory requirements for departments to send personnel to training.