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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Seattle police unit reaches out to the mentally ill

The former social worker on Ravenna Avenue Northeast used to help the vulnerable. Now, she's the one who needs help.

When she's delusional, the 66-year-old can be violent toward neighbors. In two years, her neighbors have called police a dozen times.

As Seattle Police Officers Scott Enright and Suzie Parton pull up one afternoon in September, they can barely see her home behind a wall of overgrown blackberry bushes. They wonder if she will be calm, confused or even safe.

She has physically attacked one neighbor and dumped cat box filler through another's sunroof. One night, she pounded on a sleeping 3-year-old's bedroom window, beckoning the child to come outside.

"That was super-scary for that family," said Parton, part of the Crisis Intervention Unit, which specializes in working with the mentally ill.

The woman isn't sick or dangerous enough to be detained for psychiatric help. Yet, when she's been arrested, her mental problems made her incapable of facing criminal charges.

With resources limited for the mentally ill, police often are the first to get called when someone is having a psychiatric meltdown. In a unique approach, the Seattle Police Department dedicated two officers to cases such as this one, hoping to prevent crises before they turn tragic.

Part cop, part social worker, Enright and Parton look for solutions for people who commit crimes because they are undiagnosed, off their meds or lacking access to services. They coordinate with social workers, probation officers and mental health professionals, hoping to get unstable people off the streets and into treatment, or jail.

"Getting them the treatment and social services they need meets a public safety need, which is what we're about," Enright said. [Mark Godsey]

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