The difference between policy and reality is sometimes the difference between life and death. The Boise Police Department, when responding to any one of the 150,000 calls it receives in a year, adheres to strict procedures. But more frequently, law enforcement is dealing with volatile situations that require skill sets not found in any manual.
Approximately 18 months ago, Boise's 911 dispatchers received a frantic call from a man whose son had recently returned from a combat mission in Afghanistan. The soldier had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
"The son had a shotgun and he was threatening to blow his brains out," said Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson. "You didn't read about this one in the papers."
Boise police officers crafted a tactical plan when they arrived on the scene--get the father and other members of the family out of the house as soon as possible.
"And then they walked away," said Masterson. "They had enough information to lead them to the conclusion that they felt that if the son was intent on committing suicide, he would probably do it front of a cop. So the officers walked away. [The son] slept it off. They went back the next day and got him down to the VA hospital."
Masterson said his department performs thousands of assessments routinely. "whether or not it's a matter of mental illness."
"We've walked away from a number of situations like that. You just never hear about them," said Masterson.
But two very public incidents, one that ended tragically and another that didn't, served as critical lessons for Masterson and his department.
On Dec. 18, 2004, 16-year-old Matthew Jones, struggling with mental illness, charged at Boise police with a bayoneted rifle. Within seconds, he was shot dead by a police officer. In an equally volatile moment nearly five years later, Boise police faced off with George Nickel Jr., an Iraq war veteran who has PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Nickel was armed with a handgun, AR-15 rifle and 90 rounds of ammunition. Twelve rounds of gunfire erupted. Everyone involved agreed that it's a miracle Nickel survived the event (BW, Feature, "Coming Home," Aug. 31, 2011).
"There is so much stress in this department when a life is taken. Not only does it impact the lives of the victims' families, but it certainly alters the life of an officer," said Masterson. "We deal with some rotten people who have no values and don't think twice about taking someone's life. But most of the people we deal with are good people who have made a bad decision."
But while Boise police utilize both lethal (firearms) and non-lethal (tasers) weapons, their most effective tool, said Masterson, is information about the suspect. But personal data can be hard to come by in the heat of a moment, especially when a mentally disturbed person is angry and has access to a weapon.
"We recently did an analysis of the calls we've been going on," said Masterson. "And more than half involved a firearm."
In the coming weeks, Boise Police will begin using their newest crime fighting tool: two pieces of paper that make up something called an accommodation registry. When officers respond to a domestic disturbance or a crime involving drugs or alcohol, they may consider filling out an accommodation registry, especially if the suspect is struggling with addiction or mental illness.
Officers will assess what the best/worst methods might be in trying to calm someone down. The information will be stored in a database, so that if there is a future police call involving the suspect, the data will be available to officers on the scene.
Masterson said he has already agreed to begin sharing information with the Ada County Sheriff's Office and soon the data could be available for law enforcement across the Treasure Valley.
The registry is just one change. A more informal addition to law enforcement has privately begun meeting over the past several months--a coalition of more than 30 agencies, departments and advocacy groups to support struggling individuals, with particular emphasis on veterans and their families.
The group includes local, state and federal law enforcement, judges, Veterans Administration, the state Department of Veterans Affairs, and a unique nonprofit with an even more unique name: Twisted Sisters.
"Twisted Sisters is a subgroup of the Idaho Veterans Network," said Marnie Bernard, co-founder of the organization. "We're a group of wives, girlfriends and mothers of soldiers from all over the state. The Idaho Veterans Network works as advocates for veterans who are in trouble with the law."
When she's not working as a Treasure Valley realtor, Bernard spends many of her waking hours with veterans and their loved ones. When an Idaho Marine committed suicide, she was the first person that the soldier's family called.
"I asked if there was anyone he could have talked to," said Bernard. "And they told me only another Marine. That's when I knew we had to build a mentoring system and begin working with Boise Police. Today police officers in Boise hand out brochures with my phone number, the VA and the vet center. If they run into a vet who's in danger of getting arrested, they can give them a brochure and we instantly assign a mentor."
Lately Bernard has been spending a fair amount of time at the Ada County Jail, visiting 25-year-old Josh Devlin, another combat veteran with PTSD and TBI.
Devlin was locked up in March, charged with aggravated assault, attempted strangulation and resisting arrest. His next court date is scheduled for Sept. 23.
"We're not sure how it's all going to turn out," said Bernard. "But for now, someone visits him once a week and his mental health is much better."
Bernard said if things ever improve for Devlin, he would like to attend Boise State, much like his mentor, who happens to be George Nickel.
"You can stay in jail forever unless there's somebody on the outside helping you," she said.