CLAREMONT — Following Jeffrey Ely’s death in a police shooting late last month, friends and Upper Valley mental health advocates have said they wish he had gotten the help he needed beforehand.
On March 31, Claremont Police responded to reports of shots fired at Ely’s location in a group of industrial and warehouse buildings on Sullivan Street west of downtown Claremont. They called for backup from the New Hampshire State Police SWAT team, and six troopers with the team subsequently exchanged gunfire with Ely, who was barricaded inside one of the buildings. The 40-year-old Windsor-area native died from gunshot wounds to the head, neck, upper and lower extremities and torso.
Friends and acquaintances told the Valley News that they had been worried about Ely’s mental health due to his earlier posts on Facebook mentioning “mind control” and complaining that someone was “harassing him” using voices sounding like people he knew.
Though it’s unclear what, if anything, could have saved Ely’s life, it is clear that access to mental health care in Sullivan County — where Claremont sits — is difficult and that police aren’t mental health professionals.
Roger Osmun, CEO of West Central Behavioral Health, the Lebanon-based community mental health center that also has an office in Claremont, read the news reports about Ely’s death and said they made it sound as though he may have been experiencing paranoia associated with schizophrenia.
“It’s a shame that the system couldn’t react proactively in early days,” Osmun, a psychologist, said in a phone interview last week.
The arrival of the police likely accentuated any paranoia Ely had been experiencing already, Osmun said.
“Police (are) trained to intervene and keep the public safe,” Osmun said. The limited access to mental health care is apparent to Jay Buckey, a public defender serving Sullivan County, when a client needs an evaluation a clinician to conduct it.
“It can’t necessarily be done in a reasonable amount of time,” he said, noting that it can take weeks or even months to schedule an appointment.
“It’s a really grim situation,” Buckey said.
He also said he sometimes has difficult conversations with family members of someone who is struggling with mental illness who call the police in hopes of getting their loved one help without sending them to jail. Other than getting people arrested or sending them to the emergency room, “the options to get help are limited,” he said.
For Newport, N.H., resident Dominick Dephillips, who experiences mental illness himself, Ely’s shooting illustrated the “sad, sad situation for mental health, I think.”
Dephillips has struggled to find mental health treatment but is currently in therapy and on medication he says is working.
“Most mental patients you can talk down,” Dephillips said. “You’ve got to be nice about it.”
Mental illness has played a role in several other recent incidents in Sullivan County, including the killing of Cody LaFont in 2016, who suffered from depression and was shot by a Claremont police officer three times when he walked toward the officer while holding a handgun after calling police to his home. Two other recent armed standoffs in Claremont, one in August 2019 and another in August of last year, ended without injuries. Mental illness was reported to have been a factor in both cases.
“Over the past several years, we have recognized that the mental health crisis and law enforcement intersect on a daily basis,” Deputy Attorney General Jane Young said.
Young, who declined to speak specifically about Ely’s case, also pointed to a rise in the use of methamphetamine, known as meth, as a growing problem around the state and pointed to the need to prevent substance use, rather than react to its effects. Meth can cause a range of neurological symptoms, including anxiety, confusion, memory loss, sleeping problems, violent behavior, paranoia and hallucinations, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“It is a significant problem that is only going to get worse if we cannot stem it,” she said. “You have to get on the front end.”
Mobile crisis response
Osmun, of West Central, said he’s hopeful that the planned expansion of mobile crisis services across New Hampshire will help to prevent deaths such as Ely’s in the future by bringing teams of mental health providers out to visit with people who are struggling before things escalate to violence.
By July, the Department of Health and Human Services is slated to launch a statewide mental health crisis line, an 800 number for people who are struggling, their friends, loved ones or neighbors, Osmun said. If the issue can’t be handled by phone, the dispatcher will then coordinate with the nearest available crisis team, he said.
The teams, which will be composed of a clinician with a master’s degree, as well as a counselor with a bachelor’s degree or a peer support person, will then go out to meet the person wherever they are. West Central is looking to expand its mobile crisis staff from 4½ full-time equivalents to about 21, Osmun said.
“I’m excited that New Hampshire is really looking at a new way of how crisis (services) can be provided,” Osmun said.
While mobile crisis teams won’t be appropriate for every situation, Ken Norton, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ New Hampshire chapter, said he’s hopeful that they will make a difference.
“There’s a lot of evidence nationally that mobile crisis reduces hospitalization and reduces incarceration and even any contact with law enforcement,” Norton said.
Similarly, he said the national three-digit mental health crisis line 988 is set to launch in July of 2022, which he hopes will further that same effort to ensure that the right people are responding to a mental health emergency.
John Scippa, director of New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, said he supports the effort to develop mental health crisis teams, but said he hopes they are developed “with the understanding that we also have to be able to sustain it financially.”
He also pointed to the need for police and mental health workers to coordinate their response.
It is “another variable (you’re) introducing to a very dynamic situation,” he said.
Training for police
In his three decades as a police officer, Scippa said calls for a person in crisis often involve mental illness and/or substance misuse.
“Those two situations clearly are going to alter somebody’s level of reasonableness,” he said.
As a result, he said, “I absolutely recognize the importance of this kind of training to help serve the communities we are sworn to protect. It is definitely a priority here at the police academy.”
Scippa said recruits undergo 16 hours of scenario training. In addition, certified officers are required to undergo two hours of de-escalation training annually.
He also noted that NAMI conducts a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement and first responders through a collaboration with the New Hampshire Department of Safety and New Hampshire State Police.
Demand for those classes far outstrips the organization’s ability to provide them, Norton said. He noted that money for additional training is included in Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget, as well as in a bill sponsored by state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren.
Buckey, the Sullivan County public defender, said there’s room for improvement in policing. In his work, he watches a lot of body camera footage. In some cases, he said, he’s impressed by the officers’ restraint, respect and level of professionalism.
“That’s not universal,” he said. “It depends on the (officer’s) experience, personality and training.”
Scippa said that every situation police respond to has “variables” and police often must make decisions very quickly.
“In the end, the police officer can attempt to de-escalate the situation, try to mitigate and control and protect, and despite the very best training, and despite the very best efforts of everybody there, there may be situations where the police officer may be given no other choice but to resort to deadly force,” Scippa said. “That is the tragic reality.”
But Ely’s former girlfriend, Lisa Ockington-Nugent, last week said she worried that living alone at the complex in Claremont had contributed to Ely’s depression in the months and weeks leading up to his death.
Ockington-Nugent said she wishes Ely had been able to get some kind of help for his mental health.
“He was struggling and (police) knew that,” Ockington-Nugent said. “It just shouldn’t have happened. People with mental illnesses shouldn’t be gunned down like that.”
For local resources and information on mental health issues, call New Hampshire’s help line at 1-800-242-6464 or Vermont’s help line at 802-876-7949, text “NAMI” to 741741, or visit www.NAMINH.org or www.NAMIVT.org.
Staff writer Anna Merriman contributed to this report. Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.