Police Say It Can Be Hard To Tell A Meth Case From Mental Illness : Shots - Health News Calming techniques officers learn during training for intervening in a mental health crisis don't seem to work as well when a suspect is high on meth. Police say meth calls can be much more dangerous.
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Is It A Meth Case Or Mental Illness? Police Who Need To Know Often Can't Tell

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Is It A Meth Case Or Mental Illness? Police Who Need To Know Often Can't Tell

Is It A Meth Case Or Mental Illness? Police Who Need To Know Often Can't Tell

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When police in Concord, N.H., heard about a person darting through traffic or shouting at random in a park, they would prepare for someone having a mental health breakdown until recently. Now that person is just as likely to be high on meth. Martha Bebinger of WBUR reports that the surge in meth is presenting new challenges for police.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Officer Brian Cregg is on patrol when a dispatcher sends him to the local Walmart parking lot. A woman returning to her truck spotted a man underneath. She confronted him. The man fled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: She's just concerned that something may be wrong with her vehicle and would like to speak to officers about it.

BEBINGER: Cregg confirms. Within minutes, he's turning into the lot and glimpses a tall, lanky man running between cars.

BRIAN CREGG: Where'd he go? Get the hell out of the way. Get out of the way.

BEBINGER: Cregg works his way through shoppers and cars.

CREGG: That's him right there. He's in the red truck.

BEBINGER: Cregg approaches a man named Kerry. While Kerry leans against the back of his own truck, Cregg tries to decipher his story.

CREGG: Someone said there's a truck you can win?

KERRY: Yes.

CREGG: So that's what made you lie on the ground?

BEBINGER: Yeah, says Kerry. There's a contest. If he wins, Kerry gets a new truck. He just has to find the truck with a key hidden underneath. We're only using Kerry's first name because he may have serious mental health or substance use problems.

CREGG: Kerry, did you take anything today?

BEBINGER: Any meth, Cregg asks? Kerry shakes his head no.

CREGG: Stay right there for me, all right?

KERRY: (Unintelligible).

CREGG: All right. I like you, too, but stay right there.

BEBINGER: Cregg watches Kerry, looking for signs. Is this meth or mental health? Cregg has two backup officers. These days, Concord may dispatch six or eight officers to a meth call. Several of the department's officers have been injured trying to restrain someone running through traffic or bouncing through store aisles. Cregg decides Kerry's delusions are tied to his mental health.

CREGG: Hey, Kerry, man. You feel like you want to go up to the hospital to speak to somebody or anything like that?

BEBINGER: Inside Cregg's cruiser, he asks several times. Kerry keeps saying no.

CREGG: All right, Kerry. Let's go. I'm going to put you in this cell.

BEBINGER: Kerry's charge - prowling. Cregg searches Kerry's pockets and finds something that changes his view of the day's events.

CREGG: What is that, Kerry?

BEBINGER: It's a tiny plastic bag of glistening white shards - what appears to be meth.

CREGG: Then all of a sudden, you do a pat down and boom. This explains a lot.

BEBINGER: Cregg says what he thought was psychotic behavior likely had more to do with meth.

CREGG: Today was - the thing on that call - they mimicked each other. I wasn't able to tell.

BEBINGER: Maybe because Kerry is one of millions of Americans coping with both a mental health and substance use disorder. Not being able to tell what fueled Kerry's delusions may not have mattered. Officer Cregg used calming crisis intervention techniques, and things never got out of hand. But Concord police chief Brad Osgood says calls triggered by meth are often more challenging.

BRAD OSGOOD: With somebody that's high on methamphetamine, you want to treat them a little firmer and, you know, control them because they often are very volatile and aggressive. And you just want to treat that hostility differently.

BEBINGER: With meth use rising in Concord, police say their default is becoming that firmer approach. Some mental health advocates worry that may mean too much force used on their clients. Sam Cochran, who co-founded and now helps lead an international crisis intervention police training program, says officers are not making a diagnosis.

SAM COCHRAN: The officer's foremost is, how do I open up communications? How do I get compliance in order to accomplish safety?

BEBINGER: Searching meth use is relatively new in New England. Cochran, a Memphis police department veteran, has dealt with this meth mimicking mental health issue for years. He says slowing things down and diffusing fear can work with people high on meth.

COCHRAN: But let's be real. There are some individuals that are so sick, officers find themselves oftentimes having to act immediately in order to protect safety. And sometimes, that may mean a hands-on approach.

BEBINGER: Cochran and another mental health advocate, Dr. Margie Balfour, say the goal is to only use force as a last resort.

MARGIE BALFOUR: And then ideally, regardless of what the etiology is - whether it's meth or mental health or both - that you're going to be able to take that person to somewhere where they're going to get treatment and not to jail.

BEBINGER: Balfour works with a network of crisis centers in Arizona, where she says police can drop off anyone who is out of control on meth or with a mental health condition 24 hours a day instead of making an arrest. Back in New Hampshire, Kerry was due in court last week, where a judge could have ordered a drug or mental health evaluation. Kerry says he missed the hearing and is trying to reschedule.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Concord, N.H.

CORNISH: This story comes from a reporting partnership between NPR, WBUR and Kaiser Health News.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we characterize CIT International as a crisis intervention police training program. Training actually is just part of what CIT does.]

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