Reno police reach out to troubled people

Photos by D. Brian Burghart Illustration by Jonathan Buck

This is the third installment in our year-long project looking at the issue of fatal encounters between law enforcement and people.

When I talk about the Fatal Encounters project, which focuses on people who've been killed by law enforcement in the United States since 2000, people often ask me if I'm scared of police. And except for times like this, standing outside the Reno Police Department's main building—that white, vaguely Orwellian building on East Second Street—I'm not. Sure, I'll never be able to be unaware where my hands are when I get pulled over again, but afraid? Don't be 'noid.

But at 7:45 a.m. on a spring morning, a couple of weeks after a mostly satisfactory but woefully inadequate story about law enforcement-involved deaths was on the stands, I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry that I'd forgotten to pay a ticket during that whole parking meter fiasco with the city of Reno. And after months of doing research on the depressing topic of police killing Americans, it's probably not all that surprising that the stuff gets into my head.

I was there at the invitation of Reno Police Officer Travis Warren to do a ride along with a MOST squad, so my presence couldn't have been under friendlier circumstances. But still.

The MOST squad is those men and women who drive around in the white police vans with the green, blue and sky-blue racing stripes, the police badge in the “O” and the words “Mobile Outreach Safety Team” underlining the acronym.

The MOST team is a duo consisting of a mental health professional and a law enforcement officer.

Originally, in 2009-10, it was a partnership between Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health and the Reno Police Department. Since then, the program has grown in size, and gained partners and agencies, but its fundamental purpose remains the same—to stabilize threatening situations in which mostly mentally ill people “in crisis” are interacting with police.

After a few minutes, Warren opened the door, introduced himself, exchanged my driver’s license for a vistor’s ID, and led me into the labyrinthine building. I got a good vibe from him. He’s a photogenic guy, muscular, taller than average, with dimples and close-cropped hair, the kind of guy who probably hates to see himself described in print. He’d have worked fine as an actor on one of those 20th century TV shows that featured uniformed cops as the heroes—CHiPs, for example.

After the perfunctories, coffee and such, I was introduced to Warren’s partner, James Kilgore, and others on the squad. Kilgore is a stocky guy with glasses, and a goatee that goes from white in the mustache to gray in the beard. He’s got a broad, friendly demeanor and was dressed business casual. If I was going to place him in a pop culture context, I think he’d be a great fatherly character in a leather chair facing away from a patient in one of those mental health-oriented sitcoms like the Bob Newhart Show. The fact that he’s a mental health counselor probably adds to that.

Warren and Kilgore are eloquent representatives for MOST.

“We do emergency mental health calls, crisis stabilization and try to keep the person who’s struggling with the mental illness safe, try to keep the community safe, and last but not least, try to keep our officers safe,” Kilgore said. “If there’s a 911 call that comes in, we go out to that, and we intercept the situation. We try to determine at that point what would be the most successful recourse, where to refer them. We’re the mental health paramedics. … If they need to be taken to the hospital, we make sure that they get to the hospital. If we need to pass the baton and get them to Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services [his employer], we try to get them into our services and open the services, get counseling, get medications—whatever is needed to be able to get the person stabilized.

That’s a mouthful, and it’s only a few facets of one of the most progressive police programs I’ve heard of in Nevada (and cheap at around $250,000 a year). But let me throw some background at you. In my research regarding fatal encounters, the big untold story is the size of the percentage of mentally ill people in the United States who are killed by police. After researching in the neighborhood of a thousand instances, my feeling—since I still have collected just a drop in the bucket—is that the actual percentage is in the neighborhood of 30 percent. Another suspicion I have is that these types of deaths are most likely to happen, by percentage, in areas with lower urban density. Think Sparks vs. Las Vegas. In 2013 in Washoe County, three out of four people who were killed by police were mentally ill. In denser areas, police kill a higher than average percentage of minorities. In less dense areas, police kill a higher than average percentage of mentally ill people.

It makes sense, right? Who else is going to pull a knife or a gun or charge cops with a stick? Nobody in their right mind, to be indelicate. And yet, mental illness doesn’t make someone an inaccurate shot, and police are trained to respond to neutralize the threat to themselves or bystanders.

The MOST squad was created to prevent, as often as possible, that horrible sort of outcome. The teams go out in the community to get comfortable with people who suffer from various mental health issues before they’re “in crisis” so they can be of value at the moment of truth.

Riding in cars with men

Despite the fancy stripes, the van isn’t what you’d call luxurious. It’s got the cop car electronic set-up, but there’s no moon roof or Corinthian leather seats or anything. The most interesting thing about it is the seating options behind the partition in back. There’s a bench seat and a single bucket seat that appears to be designed for people who are balance impaired or who need to be restrained. I’ve spent my life avoiding a ride in that particular chair.

Warren and I come to a quick agreement about protocol. I’m fine with withholding people’s names, and believe it or not, I’m also fine with getting dumped off at 7-Eleven if there’s a 10-78, which is basically a situation too dangerous for us “civilians” without bullet-proof vests.

We’re barely on the road before we get our first call. A homeless couple is having a dispute next to a law office on Arlington Avenue, just south of the river, and we go to investigate, as do other patrol cars.

While the woman has disappeared, we find the guy. His camp is well-hidden, spitting distance from the avenue, but completely camouflaged. That in itself is a bit of an eye-opener for me. He’s tucked into a little spot out of the wind. Affable enough, officers move in to talk to him and establish that he’s not a threat to others or himself and then Kilgore moves in with his soothing presence. “Ed” acknowledges he could use a bit of detox, and after he throws most of his possessions in a Dumpster, we oblige him with a lift.

I don’t want to get into a recitation of the day’s activities. Suffice it to say even though Warren kept remarking that it was a quiet morning, we kept going from event to event. We went from people suffering from substance abuse to one man with a nearly complete psychotic break with reality—he was dying on his feet, but refused treatment—to an assisted-living facility, and then to a pregnant and dehydrated meth addict. And through it all was that uncommon authority-mixed-with-sympathy teamwork.

There was one man, though, who struck me as symbolic of the day. We were called to some apartments off Booth Street. Somebody had called 911 saying their relative, “Fidel,” was threatening to commit suicide by eating rat poison. My pulse quickened as we wove on foot through that apartment complex, not quite certain of the apartment number or the man’s location. When we found him, he invited us into the worn but comfortable enough living room. Kilgore and Fidel talked about work history, alcohol and drug use, relationship status, all the things you’d expect to talk about in a shrink’s office. Fidel sheepishly admitted that he had no intention of harming himself, he was just trying to get attention from his estranged girlfriend. However, I wasn’t convinced that was the truth of things when we sat down, even though I believe it was the truth when we left. It felt to me like he was in need of some sympathy because the people around him weren’t acknowledging his psychic pain.

I know that sounds a little touchy-feely, but that’s essentially all that transpired in the time between the uncomfortable search for the apartment, and us leaving, success defined by an appointment set for Warren and Kilgore to stop by and visit “just to check” in a couple of days. It wasn’t anything miraculous, but it’s probably nothing that would have happened if officers less trained in mental-health issues had responded to the call.

The vast majority of encounters that Warren and Kilgore are faced with are like that—human interactions that plant a friendly seed in case the person ever ends up in crisis.

Warren said the crisis situations are much less common. He has two that are emblematic of the big payoff for the small investment of the MOST program. In one, another RPD affiliate of the team, Colleen Guilford, a trained negotiator—Warren is a negotiator as well—was able to communicate with a person who’d already fired one shotgun round into a wall and then set off down the road with the firearm. He thought he was taking out the media that was always spying on him and stealing his ideas. But instead of becoming a statistic, he’s getting the help he needs.

“And that was really, really big,” said Warren. “Colleen was convinced—all the officers there were convinced to a degree—that they were going to have to shoot this kid. And he did everything right. If he would have done one thing wrong, it would have changed. But he did everything right, and she did everything right.

“There’s a lot of interventions that we have done that have actually spared our community a lot of pain and a lot of difficulties. There’s one in particular that we worked out when we first started working together. There was a subject who came into town that had nine firearms, over 4,000 rounds of ammunition, and his fantasy was to enact some kind of global change and to get everyone’s attention. He was either going to go to a mall or a school and shoot people. And we were able to intervene and get him into the hospital, followed up, he’s doing well now. He’s under psychiatric care, and he’s being monitored.

“The community never really hears about those kinds of things.”

The van comes to a stop in the back parking lot of that Orwellian building on East Second Street. I’m in a rush to make another meeting. The hallways no longer seem like a labyrinth designed to keep me off balance, and even though I make it outside before I remember the cops have my driver’s license, I’m not hesitant to go back in to retrieve it.

Warren and Kilgore are able to make friendly connections with potentially unstable people in the community, helping them be more comfortable with police officers. Walking back into the police station, I realized that their engagement with me, a journalist who documents killings by law enforcement, had the same effect: I was now a little more comfortable.