Shooting of North Alabama deputy reminder of risk

Published 11:44 pm Friday, February 12, 2016

Law enforcement is a hazardous profession. Every day the men and women of our police and sheriff’s departments pin on their badges, they know there’s a chance they could encounter a potentially dangerous situation.

As they protect and serve the communities where they live, these officers face risks that range from volatile domestic disturbances, to undercover drug stings, to unsuspected attacks by those who find themselves on the opposite side of the law.

Such was the case Wednesday night when Lauderdale County Deputy Randall McCrary attempted to serve a mental commitment paper at a residence in north Florence. Details of what unfolded remain sketchy, but McCrary and the man being served were both injured during an exchange of gunfire.

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“This is absolutely the worst fear anyone in law enforcement can have,” Florence Police Chief Ron Tyler said of the shooting. “Someone out here, serving our county, our citizens, trying to keep them safe, and this happens. Unfortunate is not a strong enough word for this. It’s senseless.”

Senseless, yes. Uncommon, no.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s latest statistics on law enforcement officers killed and assaulted reveal that 48,315 officers were assaulted in 2014 while performing their duties. The rate of officer assaults was 9 assaults for every 100 sworn officers in the 11,151 agencies participating in the survey.

Twenty-eight percent of the officers attacked suffered serious injuries, lessened because the majority of the time, the assailants used only their hands, fists and feet to fight off the officers. But in 4 percent of the attacks, guns were used. Those incidences produced more than 1,200 injuries to officers.

Wednesday’s shooting involved an element that statistics would indicate is seldom encountered — a case involving a mental commitment order. The FBI statistics reveal that in 2014, just three officers were killed while handling persons with mental illness.

In 2015 as the Alabama Legislature worked to balance the state budget, agencies such as mental health and law enforcement faced the possibility of drastic cuts. And Tuesday during his State of the State address, Gov. Robert Bentley proposed level funding for mental health in 2017.

The inadequate funding for many mental-health treatment programs has left law enforcement officers with less options to work with when dealing with individuals struggling with mental disorders. And that puts officers such as Deputy McCrary in an uncomfortably dangerous situation.

Tyler pointed out law enforcement personnel are not trained to handle situations involving mental illnesses.

“When police have to respond to calls involving people in a crisis state,” said Chief Tyler, “the thinking is so irrational that our standard techniques are ineffective. It makes no sense.”

Bryan Libell, director of the Riverbend Center for Mental Health, said mental health authorities are more than willing to work hand-in-hand with law enforcement agencies when they are called to handle cases involving mental health issues. But reduced or level funding from the state has left most mental health agencies with limited resources.

If the current funding trend continues for mental health services in the state of Alabama, police will increasingly be called upon to address situations involving mentally ill persons who may be suspects, persons in need of protection, or individuals in need of assistance. This will require departments to prepare their officers to recognize and appropriately respond to indicators of mental illness.

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