The recent officer-involved shooting of a reportedly suicidal man in Walpole once again raises the issue of police responding to mental health calls.

What prompted a New Hampshire state trooper to shoot and wound Jacob Gasbarro, 26, outside a County Road home Dec. 4 remains unclear. Authorities are withholding details, pending investigation.

Gasbarro was hospitalized with a gunshot wound he suffered during a brief confrontation with the Trooper Zachary Bernier and Walpole police Officer Dean Wright, who did not fire his weapon, according to the N.H. Attorney General’s Office.

By all accounts, this kind of incident isn’t isolated.

In analyzing reports from the state Attorney General’s Office, the Concord Monitor found that more than 60 percent of people shot and killed by police in New Hampshire in the last decade struggled with mental illness. Further, all five of the deadly police shootings in the past two years have involved someone in the midst of a mental health crisis, the newspaper reported. These findings have been shared in a series offered through the Granite State News Collaborative and published in The Sentinel.

Interestingly, no federal or state agencies routinely collect data on the role mental illness plays in police shootings. This is astounding, because it is estimated that at least a quarter of fatal police shootings in this country involve someone with severe mental illness.

In the Monitor report, Russell Conte, a retired state police major who is now the agency’s mental health and wellness coordinator, indicated that mental health incidents have dominated police calls for many years, constituting perhaps 70 to 80 percent of calls. “It’s kinda always been that elephant in the room,” Conte is quoted as saying.

The lack of mental health crisis services across the U.S. has resulted in law enforcement officers serving as first responders to most crises, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Unfortunately, most police officers aren’t equipped to handle these calls. According to an article by Sentinel staff writer Caleb Symons, about one-third of state police troopers have received Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training since 2019. While many have excellent interpersonal skills, police officers are not social workers. They are law enforcement agents.

Some critics have vilified police for reacting too quickly in volatile situations, but split-second decisions are difficult to make in a highly charged atmosphere. Generally, when police are called to the scene of someone in mental-health crisis, reports show, the situation has escalated to the point where the person in crisis is recklessly endangering others. It’s usually a family member or friend who has called the police out of fear for their safety, or that of the person in crisis. These scenes sometimes involve barricading, hostage-taking and brandishing of weapons.

New Hampshire law says police shooting is justified when an officer reasonably believes it is necessary to protect themselves or others from what they perceive as imminent deadly force.

Some mental health advocates have said it would be wiser to deal with the issue upstream, by investing more money in mental health resources, rather than dropping the problem into the lap of law enforcement when things have reached the crisis stage.

To that end, New Hampshire is in the process of building a network of 10 mobile crisis teams to dispatch a clinical specialist and a peer-support specialist (someone who’s “been there”) to callers in crisis. And they may ask law enforcement to accompany them on calls.

Bringing in mental health experts first is probably the preferred approach. Another approach would be for police departments to employ mental health professionals who could work in tandem with officers. Last spring, voters in Winchester approved a town meeting article to appropriate $25,000 to hire a part-time social worker for the police department. It remains to be seen whether the town police department under its new chief will implement this, but it would be a worthwhile experiment.

In the meantime, all police officers should receive de-escalation training, given the number of mental health-related calls they receive.

A bill recently introduced in the N.H. Legislature would establish a committee to study the role of mental health in police use-of-force incidents. The legislation would also provide nearly $4 million to reimburse local police agencies for enrolling their officers in CIT training. This training isn’t currently a requirement, but until the state invests more money in sorely needed mental health services, it should be.

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