Walpole shooting renews questions over police role in mental-health crises | Local News

Via Peters

As authorities withhold further details, pending an investigation, on what prompted a N.H. state trooper to shoot and wound someone in Walpole earlier this month, the incident raises fresh questions about law-enforcement officers’ ability to safely respond to mental-health emergencies.

Trooper Zachary Bernier shot Jacob Gasbarro, 26, outside a County Road home Dec. 4, shortly after responding to the property for a report that Gasbarro was acting suicidal, according to the N.H. Attorney General’s Office.

Attorney General John M. Formella has said Gasbarro was hospitalized with a gunshot wound he suffered during a brief confrontation with Bernier and Walpole police Officer Dean Wright. Wright did not fire his weapon, according to Formella.

State officials have declined to say what led Bernier to shoot Gasbarro three minutes after the officers arrived at the 800 County Road residence. It is not clear whether Gasbarro had a weapon at the time.

While the details in that incident remain murky, a 2019 report by InDepthNH.org found that in nearly half of police shootings in New Hampshire over the past three decades, the person who was shot had a documented history of mental illness — well above the national average of about 25 percent.

A growing number of state troopers have been trained to help someone in mental-health crisis, a protocol that includes connecting that person with a professional clinician, according to Russell Conte, the agency’s mental-health and wellness coordinator.

Conte, a retired N.H. State Police major, said roughly 100 officers — about one-third of the force — have received the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training since it became available in 2019. Troopers previously had “minimal training” on mental health, he said Wednesday, even though much of their work involves dealing with issues, such as substance-use disorder and domestic violence, often linked to psychiatric problems.

“We knew as an organization … there was a need because of the amount of people that are in crisis,” he said.

The 40-hour CIT training isn’t required for state troopers, according to Conte, who said officers are referred to the program by their supervisors. Other first responders in New Hampshire — including local police, firefighters and EMTs — are starting to attend the course, too.

“Everybody is going to be this person, during the day or during the night, that is going to go on one of those calls,” he said. “… If we’re going to provide service to those families that I believe they deserve, we have to have those skills.”

As part of the CIT program, troopers are trained to identify and de-escalate mental-health crises, Conte said. That includes connecting the person in distress with a professional clinician at one of the state’s 10 community mental health centers, either for an in-person evaluation or a telehealth session, he said. In extreme cases, Conte said State Police are trained to refer someone for involuntary hospitalization.

“There’s plenty of times where you can get to a scene [and] it has not escalated to a point where any force has to be used,” he said.

Geoffrey W.R. Ward, the state’s senior assistant attorney general, declined Friday to say whether Bernier had received CIT training.

State Police hope to eventually provide all officers with that instruction, according to Conte, who said it would “minimize these incidents that happen where the outcome is detrimental to the person,” their family and police.

But efforts are underway in New Hampshire to reduce interactions between law enforcement and people dealing with mental illness.

A bill recently introduced in the N.H. Legislature would establish a committee to study the role of mental health in police-use-of-force incidents. The legislation would also provide nearly $4 million to reimburse local police agencies for enrolling their officers in CIT training.

Mental health centers based in Concord, Manchester and Nashua have also in recent years begun dispatching clinicians to de-escalate psychiatric crises — in some cases, accompanying or replacing police at the scene.

That model, which data show has helped reduce hospitalizations for mental illness, is the basis for a plan to make similar emergency resources available across the state. Part of a package lawmakers enacted two years ago to expand mental-health services, the mobile crisis-response teams got a boost in June when the N.H. Executive Council approved $52 million for the 10 community providers.

Conte, the N.H. State Police mental-health and wellness coordinator, said the mobile crisis-response units will help provide even better care to people with mental illness. And with the state set to roll out a new 988 mental-health emergency hotline in July, Conte said professional clinicians will often be dispatched to those calls directly, sparing police from requesting their aid while going to the scene.

“By the time you get there, it’s much more of a team effort,” he said. “And that moves people towards a much better outcome. It’s going to save lives. It already has.”

But it remains unclear how quickly the crisis-response teams will be available for emergencies in rural areas and at odd hours, such as the call that preceded the County Road shooting.

Due to low staffing numbers, Monadnock Family Services in Keene — the Monadnock Region’s mental health center — will be able to provide only daytime mobile units at the outset, according to CEO Phil Wyzik.

MFS, which administers emergency psychiatric care and operates a 24/7 hotline, would need approximately 10 full-time workers to offer the crisis-response teams around the clock, Wyzik said, since the state contract for that service requires two people to respond to each emergency. As of Friday, he said the nonprofit had only about one-third of the people needed to fully staff those mobile units when they launch next month.

“There’s still a lot of concerns about the workforce that needs to do this job,” he said.

Wyzik declined to say whether MFS was contacted to assist with the County Road incident, citing the organization’s confidentiality policy.

In other states with psychiatric-crisis hotlines, he said a large majority of calls are resolved over the phone. But for emergencies that need an in-person intervention, Wyzik said it’s too early to know how clinicians and law enforcement will work together.

“I think we’re going to be in the discovery phase of this to see how it really shakes out,” he said.

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness, Monadnock Family Services offers 24/7 care at 357-4400 and personal counseling at its locations in the region. Professional clinicians will be available, beginning in January, at the state’s Rapid Response Access Point service at 833-710-6477 and via the statewide 988 hotline starting in July.


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