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Scullin: East Lake advocate for the mentally ill has made a difference

Severe or untreated mental illnesses sometimes lead to encounters with law enforcement that can be confusing, unpredictable, dangerous – and, occasionally, fatal. These can be challenging situations even for trained mental health professionals, but the job of talking mentally ill people through such crises while keeping everyone else safe usually falls to law enforcement officers.

Donald Turnbaugh understands what’s at stake in such moments, having spent a career in law enforcement, with the Baltimore Police Department and the U.S. Customs Service, and working as an advocate for the mentally ill since retiring.

In 1996, a year after moving to Pinellas County, Turnbaugh and his wife Judy became active in the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, inspired, in part, by their experiences with Judy’s brother, who is mentally ill. The following year, Turnbaugh was asked to become part of an effort to establish a local Crisis Intervention Team that could train law enforcement officers in Pinellas to deal better with mentally ill people.

“There have been too many — and they continue — fatal encounters. We’re trying to prevent those,” Turnbaugh said.

“Moms used to be afraid to call the police years ago. ... They were afraid their sons might get hurt, or an officer.”

Last week, Turnbaugh and his wife, who live in East Lake, were honored as advocates of the year at the annual CIT International conference in Hartford, Conn. Turnbaugh was also given a Shine a Light award Oct. 10 by Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services.

The accolades follow years of hard work to establish a Crisis Intervention Team in Pinellas and then to expand to other parts of Florida.

Turnbaugh worked with the local NAMI chapter and mental health providers to create a Crisis Intervention Team here, following on the success of the first program, which started in 1988 in Memphis, Tenn. He met with local police chiefs and then-Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, lobbied the local training and standards council and took his cause to the press. By March 1999, 35 officers and deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the Clearwater and Largo police departments and other agencies went through the first training.

The sessions are still run the same way today. There are two 40-hour classes each year, each attended by 30-35 law enforcement officers.

Topics range from recognizing the signs and symptoms of metal illness to the side effects of the medications used to treat mental disorders. People with mental illness and their family members come in to talk about their situations and how tough it can be to deal with law enforcement. The officers and deputies role-play real-life situations and visit local mental health centers and assisted living facilities, where people with more serious issues live.

In the years since that initial session, about 1,300 law enforcement officers have been trained in Pinellas and about 18,000 in Florida.

Many chiefs would like to have all of their officers trained; a more realistic goal is to have at least one trained officer working on every shift at every agency and to make sure those officers get the calls involving mentally ill people, Turnbaugh said.

As Turnbaugh sees it, the training has been successful. Not only does it keep more mentally ill people out of jail, it has helped get better medications into the jail.

“This is, in effect, jail diversion,” he said. “What other illness, when you’re in crisis, sends you to jail?”

The impact of the program is also apparent to those who head local law enforcement agencies.

“Donald Turnbaugh is the driving force of CIT in Pinellas County,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “As a result, we’ve trained hundreds of deputies in CIT, which has had the positive effect of people with mental illness being treated appropriately and, oftentimes, not getting arrested.

“His commitment to this program to this day has been a tremendous asset. He’s made a difference in how law enforcement deals with the mentally ill in Pinellas.”

Meet the editor

If you attended the BrewHaHa benefit for Shriners Hospitals for Children at the Rutland-Farley Mansion Saturday night – an event the Tribune was proud to sponsor – we may already have crossed paths. Otherwise, you can stop by the Craftsman House, at 2955 Central Ave., from 9 to 10 a.m. Tuesday. Hope to see you there.

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(727) 828-6150

Twitter: jscullinTBO

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