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Arizona county attorney seeks police access to mental health records

PHOENIX — In the wake of a fatal officer-involved shooting, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery wants the Arizona Legislature to give police a new tool to deal with mentally ill people.

Montgomery wants a law allowing officers to see information about a person’s mental health history to possible avoid situations escalating.

“That is for (Arizona Department of Public Safety) to be able to share information with local law enforcement regarding court-adjudicated mental health for the service of treatment orders and investigations,” Montgomery said. “That information is critical to being able to develop an appropriate response to that situation, for that individual and for the officers who have been asked to respond.”

Montgomery’s request stemmed from the death of 50-year-old Michelle Cusseaux, who was shot and killed by police. Officer said she charged them with a hammer while they were trying to take her to a mental health facility.

Montgomery called for a change to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 that prevents release of patient information. He said if the change is granted, officers would have a better idea of what to expect and that, hypothetically, could lead to a better response.

“It could very well have critical information on there that could provide for an appropriate response and an appropriate understanding of the individual that they need to be coming into contact with, which would be for the benefit of everybody involved,” he said.

For their part, the Mesa Police Department has already begun a pilot program designed to make things safer when they have to deal with a mentally ill person.

The Mesa Police department detains over 300 mentally ill patients every year.

“These are not criminals. These are people who have been petitioned to the court for pickup for the safety of themselves or the safety of others,” explained Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead. “This duty to pick these people up and transport them to a mental health facility has been pushed down to the municipal level, which is the municipal police departments.”

The new program wound send both police and fire crews to pick them up.

“They would respond in a different type of capacity with a vehicle that they’re able to transport,” he said. “A vehicle that allows them to move people that aren’t criminals to a health care facility.”

Both the officers and the firefighters will have completed crisis and intervention training on how to deal with mental health issues.

Milstead said his department is working with several organizations to get the program off of the ground.

While Mesa is the first to take the first step, Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia is aware some changes must be made, when it comes to handling mentally ill suspects and victims.

After Cusseaux’s death, Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia called for more mental health training for officers.

“I want to increase our training and, in the future, I think the Phoenix Police Department has to have a 40-hour module of training on a two-year cycle for every officer,” he said.

Garcia also publicly apologized for the shooting and called for an independent investigation. After they claimed one was not began, they protested in downtown Phoenix and brought Cusseaux’s body, in a casket, with them.

“We’re not here alone,” said the Rev. Jarrett Maupin at the protest. “We took the drastic step of bringing Michelle (Cusseaux)’s body to City Hall to emphasize the importance of justice in this case.”

Cusseaux’s family and supporters have joined Garcia’s request for an investigation. They are also hoping the Justice Department will intervene.

KTAR’s Cooper Rummell and the KTAR Newsroom contributed to this report.