Vermont mom outraged by police response to teen in crisis

In May, Cathy Austrian called the police after her then 14-year-old returned home with dozens of vaporizers stolen from a convenience store in Burlington, Vermont. Austrian wanted her child, who has struggled with behavioral and mental health issues for years, to learn right from wrong. But after the police arrived, the situation took a violent turn.

Austrian’s child sat on the edge of the bed unresponsive as the two officers tried for nearly 10 minutes to persuade the teenager to flip the vapes, according to body camera footage Austrian provided to NBC News.

Officers paused at the door while Austrian searched the room and found all the vaporizers except for the one in her child’s hand. (NBC News does not identify the teen, who is nonbinary and uses the pronouns she/she because they are underage.)

Austrian spent about 15 seconds getting the teenager to hand over the vape. Officers then moved in, repeating that they would have to arrest the teenager and handcuff him if he was not turned over, body camera footage showed.

“They don’t want to do this,” one of the officers said, according to the footage.

Officers pinned Austrian’s child to the bed and snatched the vaporizer from the teenager’s hand. The teenager lunged at her, swinging his hands and arms, prompting officers to force the teenager to the ground and in a prone position, body camera footage showed.

About 15 minutes later, paramedics arrived and placed a mesh sleeve, often referred to as a “spit sock,” over the screaming teenager’s head. They then injected the teenager with ketamine, a sedative, and carried the limp body out of the house while Austrian looked on.

“It was just a nightmare,” the 64-year-old Austrian told NBC News. “It’s something you never expected would have ever happened.”

It’s a problem that has plagued law enforcement for decades: how police respond to people in a mental health crisis. However, many police departments have been slow to reform their tactics.

Mental health and criminal justice experts say the majority of police departments, even the most advanced, are still a long way from implementing best practice – especially when it comes to the most sensitive cases, such as those committed.

“Despite our efforts to really improve crisis response and create an alternative crisis response, I think we’re still a long way from that,” said Shannon Scully, senior manager of criminal justice policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

In Burlington, for example, a key reform implemented months after the Austrians Kind incident — dispatching social workers to certain calls — would not have been applied in this case. As per department policy, social workers do not respond to calls involving the reporting of a potential crime.

Experts say the push to reduce police encounters with people with mental illness is an important step, but without increased police training, more adverse encounters are inevitable.

“If we are to avoid these catastrophic consequences, they should back off when they recognize – and they should be trained to recognize – that they are dealing with someone suffering from a serious mental illness,” Paul S. Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry, medicine and law at Columbia University, said and spoke generally about police encounters with people with mental health problems.

“It will give us much better results than the current police approach to these situations, which so often leads to tragedy.”

The main form of training known as crisis intervention team training has existed for decades. It began in Memphis, Tennessee, after police fatally shot a black man with a history of mental illness. The department worked with NAMI to create a training program for officers.

Known as the Memphis Model, it is a 40-hour course that goes beyond individual officer training. It also provides a roadmap for how communities can develop a comprehensive response to mental health calls by working with social services.

Ron Bruno, the managing director of CIT International, which provides guidance on how to implement the program, said many departments treat it just as training and refrain from implementing the broader approach.

“I think Chiefs look at it like a liability issue, let’s check the box,” Bruno said. “I was literally told by chiefs not to let anyone tell them how to train their cops. They will do what they want.”

According to a study by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, people in a mental health crisis are 16 times more likely to have fatal interactions with the police. Experts say that not only are officers often unprepared, their mere presence can make a situation worse.

“Any presence of an officer can escalate a situation that otherwise would not have escalated,” said Bruno.

Burlington Police, considered one of the most progressive departments in the country, have had three fatal interactions with people with mental health problems.

In 2013, an officer fatally shot Wayne Brunette outside his parents’ home after his mother called 911 about his erratic behavior. In response to a family lawsuit, the city said the use of force was objectively reasonable, but later settled the lawsuit for $270,000.

In 2016, an officer fatally shot 76-year-old Phil Grenon, who was facing eviction and was in an escalating mental health crisis after approaching officers with two knives.

And in 2019, Douglas Kilburn became furious when he was denied access to his wife, who was a patient at the University of Vermont Medical Center. An officer told Kilburn to leave and verbally abused him, body camera footage showed, prompting Kilburn to hit him. The officer hit back, hitting Kilburn three times.

The mentally challenged man was found dead days later, officials said. The coroner ruled that his death was manslaughter.

The attorney general declined to press charges against the officer, saying the violence was justified but the officer’s actions before the fight led to the altercation. The officer was not disciplined by the department but received a swearing-in reprimand. The city eventually settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family for $45,000.

Burlington police have been criticized for not stepping up their training on how to deal with people with mental illness.

A recent analysis, conducted by an outside consultant and reviewed by NBC News, found that the Burlington Police Department’s attendance at the state’s free mental health training course was minimal. In the nine years of the program’s existence, the department has sent only 23 officers, less than a quarter of the force, for training.

The two officers involved in the incident at Austrian’s home never received the training, according to records verified by NBC News.

“I would definitely like them to be more active given the culture up there and what’s going on,” said training coordinator Kristin Chandler. “I think it might be more helpful.”

‘Like an animal’

Austrian said she had no hesitation in calling police that day in May about her adopted child, who was diagnosed with early childhood developmental trauma, ADHD and an intellectual disability.

“It’s up to me as an adult to do whatever the right thing is,” said Austrian, who is a single mother.

Burlington police officers were already at the supermarket where the alleged theft took place – workers had called 911 after Austrian’s child left.

Cashiers told officers the teenager threatened them with a hammer and a knife (it was kitchen scissors, according to Austrian). A cashier described the teen, who is 5ft 8 and about 230lbs, as “awkward” and “scary,” according to body camera footage obtained by NBC News.

The same two officers showed up at Austrian.

This wasn’t the family’s first interaction with Burlington police. Austrian had previously dialed the emergency number several times when her child was in danger of injuring herself or others. The incidents were all resolved peacefully, she said. When officers arrived around 7:30 p.m., Austrian told them her child had had a tough week, body camera footage showed.

Austrian said the teen’s ADHD medication had recently been increased, they had had an MRI for a heart condition and were acting both erratic and distant. She also told police the teenager had no guns. She handed them the bag of vapes and explained that there were more upstairs, as the footage showed.

About 10 minutes later, their multiracial child was lying on the ground screaming as officers held the teenager’s arms and legs.

It was “like an animal being pinned down,” Austrian said.

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