Tobago ACP William Nurse has said police officers have no formal training in mental health areas, but rather are trained to preserve the peace and detect crime.
Speaking to Newsday in a phone interview, Nurse was responding to the mother of a mentally-challenged 18-year-old man who was reported to have run out of his home on Wednesday after an episode.
Latoya Blackburn-Gunness, who lives in Scarborough, Tobago with her husband and seven children, took to social media on Wednesday,she claiming Scarborough police failed to help her find her son after the incident.
Blackburn-Gunness told Newsday she called Scarborough police to help her find her son. She said police took a description of the boy and told her a jeep would be sent out to search for him.
She said she also called an ambulance, but was told it could not take him unless the police were present.
She said Scarborough police told her they are not trained to deal with mental-health cases.
Nurse said in cases like this, where the person has a known mental illness, the relative can take the person to the County Medical Office to receive mental health care. In such a case, he said, the police can act and take the person to an institution with documentation to support the diagnosis.
In a case where there is a challenge that has been reported to the health authorities and an ambulance is dispatched, he said, the role of the police is to ensure there is no breach of the peace.
He said where the person who has a mental challenge commits an offence, that falls in the domain of the police. They can then arrest, charge, and prosecute. The court can then send the person for a psychiatric evaluation and report, which is returned to the court.
“They may go to St Ann’s (Psychiatric Hospital), or the court will determine if the defendant is fit enough to plead. If so, the matter proceeds and the defendant is entitled to argue a case of insanity. If the mental health institution says they are not fit to plead, that may be the end of the matter.”
In an emergency, he said, such as the one described by Blackburn-Gunness, it is difficult to know whether the person is mentally challenged, as the police cannot make a diagnosis.
Also, he asked, “Is he, by his conduct, committing an offence? Running out of the house is not a criminal offence.”
Blackburn-Gunness said the police also told her on Wednesday if her son did not want to go with them, they could not force him into the vehicle. Nurse said that is true.
Blackburn-Gunness is calling for assistance from the authorities in managing her son, as she is concerned for the safety of her other children, aged five-13. Her son was diagnosed last year with an intellectual disability.
“Me and my husband have to sleep like security,” she said. “We take turns. His other half (twin brother) would sleep inside so if he tries to do anything they shout out to me.”
She said there was a violent incident last year involving her son where the police had to be called. She said the court told her his case was handed over to the Division of Health and Wellness in Tobago after he was discharged from St Ann’s last month, but no one from the division has contacted her yet.
“He needs to be in a place where there are qualified and trained people to take care of him. He is my child and I love him, but I am a poor person. I cannot do it. They (the Children’s Authority) need to do something now.”