Mental Health and Law Enforcement
On a Sunday morning in December, 2001, a 37 year-old man named Robert “Woody” Woodward, who was apparently suffering from a psychotic break, disrupted a church service in Brattleboro, Vermont. Woodward held a small knife to his eye and pleaded with the parishoners to grant him “political asylum”. 911 was called while members of the congregation who were mental health professionals successfully calmed Woodward down.
When the police officers arrived, they demanded that Woodward drop the knife. When he did not, Woodward was shot by the police seven times and killed.
For the past five years, Brattleboro has struggled with this tragic incident. Woodward’s parents brought and settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the town and the Brattleboro police department has invested in non-lethal means of subduing suspects, such as stun guns, pepper-sprays, and more intensive officer training for negotiation and dealing with people who are emotionally disturbed.
If there can be any bright spot to this episode, perhaps it’s that it has caused police to come together with mental health advocates to devise better strategies on law enforcement and the mentally ill. This new collaboration is being felt far beyond the state of Vermont. Vermont State Police Academy co-ordinator Cindy Taylor-Patch says, “It’s a national trend. It’s hit every state at one level or another.”