Friday, September 29, 2023

By Josh McGhee

Happy Friday MindSiters,

I’m glad to be back on the beat after a few days visiting the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship. The fellowship was founded in 1996 by the former first lady.

I got to read and hear  some of the best mental health journalism from around the world from last year’s fellows. I also shared what we at MindSite News are planning for the coming year, and I learned about the planned projects from the other fellows in my cohort.

The experience has me wondering what it will be like to have a presidential center as a neighbor on the South Side in the coming years. I’m thrilled to be a Carter fellow and this was a great start to my fellowship year.

That’s me, presenting my project at the Carter Center fellowship meeting.

This month, we go behind the scenes with two colleagues who produced the first stories in an ongoing collaboration with the investigative reporting program at Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University – a series we call Fateful Encounters. The two stories were co-published by the Concord Monitor and written by Khadija Ahmed, Rob Reid and Felicity Huang. Kudos to Medill Assistant Professor Kari Lydersen, who leads the investigative reporting program and supervised the student journalists.

Let’s get into it…

Investigating fatal police encounters in New Hampshire

Two years ago, the Concord Monitor released a series called “Shots Fired,” exploring fatal shootings by police in New Hampshire. In a new update, Khadija Ahmed picked up where that reporting left off and found that not much has changed. (Read the full story here.)

Deadly Consequences: When Police Response to Mental Health Calls in New Hampshire Proves Fatal

Illustration: Eric Turner

I spoke with Khadija about her work and what she learned about police shootings in New Hampshire. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Josh McGhee: What’s important for readers to know about that original reporting in the “Shots Fired” series?

Khadija Ahmed: When I read the series I was especially struck by the story of Dawna Schaub and the fatal police shooting of her son, David Donovan. Teddy Rosenbluth’s writing was poignant and powerful in that piece. When that series was published in December of 2021, she found that more than 60% of people shot and killed by New Hampshire police in the last decade had a mental illness. That pattern remains unchanged. Police have shot and killed eight people  in New Hampshire since that initial analysis, and five of them had a history of mental illness.

One thing that stood out to me is that New Hampshire public officials are urging residents experiencing a mental health crisis to dial a 10-digit number for crisis services, rather than the supposedly easy-to-remember 988.  Why are they doing that?

For my story, I talked to the state director of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) for New Hampshire, Susan Stearns. She told me that at the federal level, geolocation hasn’t yet been funded for 988, so the 988 hotline relies on the area code of the caller to figure out where they are calling  from. In New Hampshire, 603 is the sole area code for the state but many New Hampshire residents have cell phones with other area codes. That means that if you dialed 988 in New Hampshire but have an area code from Massachusetts, for example, your call would be answered in Massachusetts – and would then have to be rerouted. That’s why a 10-digit state-specific number is being used right now instead of 988. Ideally, the state will launch 988 with geolocation eventually. Stearns said New Hampshire’s Rapid Response is still a nascent system, since it was only launched on January 1, 2022, but that the state’s mental health response is evolving.

New Hampshire advocates are calling for the creation of a mental health incident review board to investigate cases like the killing of Mischa Fay. Are they making any progress? 

At present, the state Attorney General’s office only reviews fatal shootings and determines if they are legally justified. In every case I have looked at, the office has deemed it legally justified. A mental health incident review board would look into the missed opportunities and ask what needs to be improved in services and systems to prevent this from happening again. It’s important to note that the panel would not be used in any sort of disciplinary review or action. It would only take place after any statute of limitations for penalties has run out. A state legislative committee looked into this issue and held hearings before releasing a report which is available online

In May, NAMI’s Susan Stearns told me that State Senators Prentiss and Carson are planning to start drafting legislation for the creation of a review board this fall, and then bring it forward in the 2024 session. So, it still has some way to go.

Exploring the mental health toll on the first Responders

Rob Reid is a data journalist and data consultant who specializes in wrangling data, map-based storytelling and neighborhood history. He and Felicity Huang, a journalism major at Medill with a minor in data science, took an in-depth look at the inconsistencies in the ways that 911 call centers code mental health-related calls. The story poses an important question: What impact does that lack of consistency – and the failure to provide strong training to call takers in how to handle mental health-related calls – have on the ultimate response to distressed callers?

911 Call-Takers Are Demoralized, Overwhelmed and Dealing With Their Own Mental Health Woes

911 dispatcher Lynette Williams, in a photo taken by a colleague. Courtesy: Lynette Williams

McGhee: Why did you want to focus on 911 call-takers for this story, instead of other first responders?

Rob Reid: Some of the most reflective reporting on fatal police encounters suggests that people with mental illness often would never have encountered police at all if not for systemic failures in our society and health care system. Focusing on preventing these encounters is an enormously complex undertaking, but I’m convinced that we could benefit from a closer look at what happens immediately preceding a police officer’s arrival at the scene of a mental health crisis. Specifically, I wanted to know more about the work of 911 call-takers, sometimes known as the “first” first responders.

I came across a lot of insightful research on 911 call centers: A Pew study found that 911 call centers weren’t well-equipped to handle mental health crises. Former dispatcher Jessica Gillooly’s dissertation looked at the subjective ways call-taker’s interpret certain types of calls. But I hadn’t seen much reporting on what happens at 911 call centers, while call-takers seemed eager to have their story told.

What were some aspects of the 911 call-takers’ jobs you weren’t aware of before doing this reporting?

I’ve never dialed 911, but I’m sure I would’ve fit Anthony Landry’s characterization of 911 callers who expect a response without thinking about what happens behind the scenes. It’s now clear to me that the task of interpreting calls and determining the appropriate response is complex, and especially prone to error if call-takers don’t have training and protocols that offer clear guidance. And those errors can sometimes have troubling downstream consequences..

I’ve also never been a 911 call-taker, so I also hadn’t reflected on the cumulative impact of constant exposure to trauma over long shifts. It’s now clear that an incredible degree of resilience is expected of call-takers, at the same time their pay and level of respect from our society don’t seem to match.

You and Felicity Huang built a map looking at the different classifications police departments use for mental health calls. Based on your research, does misclassifying calls lead to harm?

I’m most concerned about cities that have no mental health call codes at all. This suggests they haven’t put a lot of thought into flagging calls for mental health concerns and may not have resources available to support those needing help during a mental health crisis.

Cities that have a few different call codes seem to be trying to tease out different mental-health-related circumstances. My sense is that all cities have work to do in both shoring up call classification codes and non-police response options.

That’s a lot to chew on. Our collaboration with Medill is continuing, and in the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing more stories that explore these issues in other parts of the country.

Until next month,

Josh McGhee

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Josh McGhee is an investigative reporter covering the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He has covered Chicago on various beats for...