Mental health advocate says violence and mental illness shouldn’t be so connected

NAMI Dane County director offers perspective on recent shootings
Mental health advocate says violence and mental illness shouldn’t be so connected

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said his officers are often on the front lines of crisis, and points to mental health issues in the community as the main reason for an increase in officer-involved fatal shootings over the past month.

“Increasingly, the police are sort of forced to be a triage element of the community support system,” Koval explained, “and we’re limited in terms of the time and the resources and the skill set that we can use to deploy these people in a more appropriate way.”

On May 2, Madison officers shot and killed Londrell Johnson in his residence on East Washington Avenue.  According to Madison police, Johnson stabbed two people to death after a dispute between neighbors.

The day before that, Dane County deputies shot and killed Dean Caccamo in the Town of Primrose after he stabbed two deputies in their legs.  Caccamo also was thought to have beaten his elderly mother and stepfather.

“Unless we get together and have this mental health treatment modality looked at, examined, enhanced, improved, and made more visible, I don’t see that it’s going to get better and in fact get worse,” Koval said.

Bonnie Loughran is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Dane County. She said seeing so many fatal events linked to mental illness makes her ask some questions.

“What’s happening in Madison right now, we’re all going, what the heck?  What the heck’s going on?” Loughran said.

It’s a question she can’t fully answer, but Loughran said there are not enough services out there to serve those who need help.  She said some treatment facilities have long wait lists, and if someone has the courage to even seek help, sometimes it’s too expensive.

“That’s key.  If people have that treatment, the society as a whole, the community, will be better functioning,” Loughran said.

Loughran said NAMI is bringing Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to Madison for the first time in September.  She said the training involves health care providers, mental health advocates, and law enforcement.  That program also sets up a facility staffed by professionals where officers can bring people in crisis instead of dropping them off at the emergency room.

Loughran said while she knows it can’t apply to all officer situations, she would like to see police slow down when they’re on scene.

“A modern-day officer has to take his time, find out what’s going on, and not be in such a hurry to find a solution with a gun,” Loughran said.

Loughran said dealing with the growing issue of mental illness comes down to educating everyone, accepting everyone, and eliminating any preconceived notions linked with any associated disease.

“It’s stigma and it’s safety,” Loughran said.  “And who’s responsible?  What is the policeman’s job and what is the job of the community?  And how do we work together to make sure everybody’s safe?”