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Editorial: Welcome progress in de-escalating conflicts, factoring in mental health

Distraught man (copy)

Charleston police officers negotiate with a distraught man inside a liquor store on King Street near Carolina Street on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Matthew Fortner/Staff

An incident on King Street recently probably wouldn’t have made news had Charleston police not felt compelled to close down a short stretch of the street for several hours as they dealt with a distraught, baseball bat-wielding man smashing bottles inside — and occasionally throwing bottles out of — a liquor store.

The most significant takeaway from the incident is how it was handled: Police finally defused the situation almost a full day after it began, with a SWAT team firing tear gas into the rear of the store and the suspect peacefully walking out the front door, handcuffed and taken to a local hospital for a mental health evaluation.

This more patient approach reflects an important change in training and mindset among the city’s police. Years ago, officers dealing with a similar situation likely would have talked less, moved in more quickly and resorted to force.

As America grapples with tensions between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, particularly minority communities, better training and procedures for de-escalating conflict are important steps. In Charleston and other communities, that work has been going on quietly for years. There is still more progress to make, but last week’s encounter shows how a less-aggressive strategy — particularly when policing those who are mentally ill — can work.

“It’s definitely a cultural shift, if you will,” said Charleston police Capt. Tony Cretella, assistant commander of the Civil Disturbance Unit. “We had time on our side. There was no reason to rush in there and create a situation that did not need to be created. ... If there were other customers in the store, then we would have had to act, but you can replace property. You can’t replace a life.”

This approach takes patience and trained personnel. Several members of the police crisis intervention and crisis negotiating teams talked to the man over several hours. Other police answered questions from neighboring businesses and residents about what was going on. Officers even visited the man in the hospital to let him know how the outcome played out like they said it would, said Sgt. Lee Mixon. “We thanked him for not getting too carried away,” he said. “That went a long way with him.”

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We remember with sadness the 2003 death of Asberry Wylder, an intoxicated man with a history of mental illness who shoplifted a pack of deli ham, threatened North Charleston police with a knife and was shot and killed. Policing the streets is a demanding, dangerous job even without officers having to deal with the mentally ill; while prosecutors and a federal judge decided the police did not act inappropriately, the outcome was still tragic.

It’s encouraging that law enforcement is developing strategies to prevent such tragedies. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s new crisis intervention team includes a deputy and a state Department of Mental Health clinician who respond jointly to certain calls, such as people threatening to hurt themselves or others. Since its creation three months ago, the team has fielded more than 70 calls, according to Post and Courier reporter Adam Benson. “Being mentally ill does not mean you’re a criminal,” Mr. Lott said. “Unfortunately, for too long, it’s been treated that way.”

Charleston County, Greenville and other S.C. law enforcement agencies also are integrating new mental health protocols into certain calls. This is not a soft-on-crime concept: Mr. Lott said those who break the law will be punished, but with better training and more patience, police officers and deputies can prevent confrontations from escalating, meaning fewer people end up in an emergency room or worse. More than 150 Greenville officers also have completed 40 hours of training to de-escalate potentially volatile situations.

Of course this isn’t a panacea. The Legislature has so far been too slow to act on needed reforms, such as outlawing shooting a fleeing suspect in most cases; requiring officers to report a fellow officer who acts improperly; mandating outside investigations of police-involved shootings; and penalizing officers who turn off their body cameras, except in limited circumstances. Such steps also are crucial to address the sort of high-profile tragedies we’ve seen recently in Minnesota and elsewhere that create understandable yet counterproductive tension between police and those they serve.

But as the Legislative dawdles, we’re pleased to see local sheriffs and police chiefs step up.

As Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw told Mr. Benson: “Years ago, people would end up (in jail) instead of getting the help they needed. I think our state wants to move in the right direction, but we’ve still got a ways to go.” We agree, and we would urge all law enforcement leaders to continue to make progress down this new path.

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