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Cleveland may have violated the consent decree by changing a court-approved mental health policy

Cleveland police have the option of calling an ambulance when responding to someone in a mental health crisis, but they aren't required to. [TFoxFoto / shutterstock]

A Cleveland police policy on transporting people in a mental health crisis for medical treatment was changed after receiving approval from the federal judge overseeing the consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.

Both the approved version and the version adopted by the Cleveland Division of Police and posted online in the general police orders section of the department’s website say non-violent people who are willing to be brought to treatment after an officer responds should be provided safe transport.

But the court-approved version includes the following words, emphasis added, describing transport options: “Determine options for emergency care and transport, including EMS as an option when the individual is unwilling to be transported in a zone car, or arrange other transportation of the individual in a safe manner to the appropriate facility.”

The police policy on crisis intervention leaves out those 17 words, even though they were included in the version recommended for approval by the previous monitor, Matthew Barge, in January 2017 and approved by Judge Solomon Oliver that March. The altered police policy went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

Rosie Palfy is a mental health advocate and member of the consent decree-created Mental Health Response Advisory Committee (MHRAC), which recommended the crisis intervention policies that included the 17 deleted words.

Palfy advocated for the court-approved policy because of the 2014 death of 37-year-old Tanisha Anderson.

"Based on news reports and also talking to police officers, I was told that Tanisha would have willingly gone to the hospital in an ambulance,” Palfy said.

Instead, police responding to a mental health call from her family handcuffed and placed Anderson face down on the sidewalk after she resisted being put in the back of a police car. The responding officers did not call an ambulance. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide from asphyxiation resulting from being restrained in a prone position.

“If an ambulance is there with emergency medical technicians, you could avoid struggling with the individual,” Palfy said in explaining why officers should at least be required to consider calling EMS in cases like Anderson’s. “Wouldn’t you want to have options?”

The city’s new policies on crisis intervention adopted under the consent decree are considered one of the successes after six years of reforms. The monitor has highlighted the collaboration between the committee Palfy serves on and the city, writing in the most recent status report filed with the court earlier this month:

“CDP [Cleveland Division of Police] and ADAMHS [Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County] have been supportive of MHRAC and deserve credit for their role in the progress made so far. Many of the tasks set forth in this section of the Consent Decree have reached operational or general compliance.”

Representatives from the city, the monitor and the ADAMHS board did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

According to Palfy, the relationship has not been as successful as the monitor’s portrayal.

In the case of the 17 deleted words, the section was included in a version of the crisis intervention policy approved by MHRAC in May 2016, according to drafts posted by the monitor and the city and email correspondence between MHRAC committee members and the city. But in a November 2016 version released to the public for input, the section was removed.

“Somebody took it out and didn’t tell us,” said Palfy.

Then in January 2017, the section was put back in before it was submitted to the court for approval. The court approved that version in March.

“I think it is a big deal,” said Palfy, about the revised version adopted by the city. “What is the purpose of having a judge approve a policy if the city is going to change it?”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.