Officers who showed heroism, humanity in dealing with mentally ill

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ST. LOUIS - They are the incredible stories that never made the news. Local police officers saving troubled souls from leaping off bridges.

Selfless public servants preventing fellow citizens in emotional torment from firing weapons that could injure themselves and others.

And, in some cases, state troopers, trudging through freezing temperatures and snow to rescue a woman who was just minutes away from dying due to exposure to the elements.

All of these stories, and the officers behind them, were celebrated at the John J. McAtee Police Recognition Luncheon on Tuesday put on by the organization Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce delivered the keynote address, praising the difficult work law enforcement officers handle on a daily basis with potentially dangerous suspects dealing with mental illness.

KSDK's Pat McGonigle served as master of ceremonies and thought the testimonials for the award recipients were worth sharing.

Sgt. Jeff Chellis

Sgt. Richard Wiginton

Officer Bob Graeff

Creve Coeur Police Department

Nominated by Lt. Jon Romas

These officers responded because an armed, suicidal man was in an examination room at a hospital's Emergency Department. Sgt. Wiginton and Officer Graeff encountered this despondent man who was telling hospital staff and police he wanted to kill himself. He had already slashed one wrist and was bleeding profusely.

Officers began a dialog with the man, but he refused to put down the knife which was pressed firmly against his wrist. It became apparent that the man intended on following through with his threats.

When Sgt. Chellis arrived on the scene, his assessment, which included the seriousness of the threat and the surroundings, determined the best course of action was to deploy an electronic control device. The taser was effective in allowing the officers to safely restrain the subject. When officers searched the man and his property, they seized three other knives. He was then admitted for psychological evaluation and treatment.

By establishing dialogue, Wiginton and Graeff were able to keep the subject occupied, distracting him from further self-injury or hurting someone else until more officers could arrive.

By remaining calm, exhibiting great patience and utilizing their CIT training, the officers were able to gain control without having to resort to the use of lethal force.

Reader's note: In addition to his actions during this incident, Sgt. Chellis is the departmental CIT coordinator. He is very proactive in this role, coordinating services for consumers that patrol officers encounter each day and serving as the "CIT go-to guy" whenever someone has a question or needs advice when working a CIT case.

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Lt. Stephen Cheli
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department
Nominated by Sgt. John DeSpain

In the early morning hours, officers received a radio assignment for a distraught individual holding a gun to his head and threatening suicide. Lt. Cheli responded and assumed command of the incident. Upon arrival, the subject was sitting on the living room couch pointing a semi-automatic handgun at his temple, crying and shaking. Lt. Cheli engaged him in conversation from just outside the front door. The man said he was battling depression, other physical ailments and wanted to end his life. Cheli appealed to the subject's Christian beliefs and common interests as a way to build rapport and trust. After about 15 minutes, this officer convinced the man to place the gun on the couch, at which point assisting officers were able to render it safe. Lt. Cheli's calm demeanor and ability to empathize with this suicidal man brought the incident to a successful conclusion…a life was saved and the man was transported to the hospital for treatment.

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Officer Matthew King
St. Louis County Police Department/North County Precinct
Nominated by Sgt. Francis Kardasz

Officer King and assist officers responded to a call regarding a woman who was intoxicated, was repeatedly calling the non-emergency police number about her missing keys and stating that she "wanted a man." The subject was already known in the department because of her previous calls when in a mental health crisis, misusing 911, and reporting threatening phone calls. When officers arrived, the woman would not let them in, but was willing to communicate through the front door. After calmly talking to the resident, King convinced her to open the door and let them in. She became very verbally aggressive and accused the officers of stealing her keys. For the next 15 minutes, the subject went through a rollercoaster of emotions, hallucinations and threats of violence towards the officers. Using a tremendous amount of patience and restraint, Officer King prevented this situation from escalating. He used his verbal communication skills to keep the woman calm so he could safely secure her without incident in an ambulance for mental health services at a nearby hospital.

Reader's note: The nominator also adds that…Although cases like this may seem routine, they are extraordinarily trying on the officers and a successful outcome takes a tremendous amount of compassion, maturity and excellent verbal skills. Officer King exhibited these traits perfectly and they reflect highly not only on him but on the image and reputation of the St Louis County Police Department.
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Trooper Larry Turner

Missouri State Highway Patrol

Nominated by Lt. Ryan Burckhardt

Trooper Turner responded to radio traffic from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, indicating an attempt to locate a white female. Turner responded and was informed by on-scene deputies that the subject was lightly dressed in a sweater and socks, but no shoes. They indicated she had been spotted, naked, earlier in the morning, but had fled on foot during attempts to assist her.

Search efforts were winding down, but Turner decided to begin a search on foot where she was last seen. In the snow, he eventually located footprints that appeared to be those of a barefoot female. The tracks traveled a short distance along the bank of a creek that headed into a heavily wooded area. Advising Troop C Communications of the situation, Tuner requested assistance from Trooper Ashby, who was assisting with the search.

Following the trail, they eventually found an unclothed white female running through a residential area, and were able to detain her as she ran to the back porch of one of the residences. Her extremities were extremely red and purple and she appeared to be suffering from hypothermia. The female was making incoherent statements, such as "They're trying to kill me. Do you believe in the power of threes?" As Turner offered his coat for protection, the homeowner appeared and allowed the woman to be brought inside where blankets were provided. Turner then requested EMS. As he talked with the subject on the couch, she mumbled incoherently for a short time and began to fade in and out of consciousness.

The woman was transported to St. Anthony's Medical Center for evaluation and treatment.

On the day of this incident, the National Weather Service had issued a Winter Storm Warning for snow accumulation and winds of up to 20 miles per hour. The temperature at the time of this incident was 19 degrees. Such severe conditions would have critically endangered this woman in her psychotic state had Trooper Turner not demonstrated such diligence in locating her.

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Officer Chad Cross

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

Nominated by Sgt. Matthew Rodden

CIT-trained and former 4th District Officer Cross requested permission to respond to a potential suicide on the Eads Bridge as there were no CIT officers available in the 4th District. He arrived and approached the East St. Louis officers, who were engaged in conversation with a distraught woman standing on the outer edge of the bridge. Without knowing the other officers' degree of training, Cross joined the group. Within minutes, his training and communication skills took over. He established rapport with the female through unconventional means that this nominator had never seen before. Cross took off his gun belt, thereby removing the authoritative figure of his presence. In another unorthodox tactic for a bridge incident, he offered his hand in friendship, getting a handshake and building trust. When the woman said she was ready to "go now," Cross placed his wallet on the ground next to his gun belt and offered comfort, stating he would be jumping into the river to save her. At that point, she looked back, focused on Cross and said, "You would do that for me?" In that moment of distraction, an East St. Louis officer grabbed the woman in a bear hug. Other officers joined in to pull her to safety. Shortly thereafter, it was learned the subject was a man dressed in women's clothing, struggling with his sexual orientation. His personal issues were compounded by finances and unemployment, which were too much for him to bear. Although the incident occurred on the Illinois side of the bridge, Officer Cross allowed his crisis intervention training to override his police training. At great personal risk, he used various unconventional means to gain the trust and save the life of a person in dire mental distress.

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Officer Marcial "Anthony" Amaro

St. Louis County Police Department - South County Precinct

Nominated by Sgt. John Manestar

Officer Amaro responded to a "check the welfare" request. The caller reported that her adult son had threatened to commit suicide and had left her home in his vehicle. She reported he suffered from military-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, had been in treatment at Jefferson Barracks, and may possibly be armed with a knife. She also reported he was despondent over a deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend, and was still grieving the death of his twin infant children, which occurred in 2006. These problems were compounded by homelessness and a lack of job opportunities.

Using information gleaned from the mother, Amaro went to Jefferson Barracks Cemetery, where the infants were buried. There he observed a vehicle matching the subject's. As the vehicle left the cemetery, Amaro conducted a traffic stop and ascertained that the driver was indeed the person he was looking for. Amaro approached the vehicle and gave verbal instructions for the subject to keep his hands visible. He began talking with the subject who kept the vehicle running, refused to exit and displayed a somewhat belligerent attitude.

To build trust, Officer Amaro continued his dialogue. After about 15 minutes, he convinced the man to exit the vehicle. Amaro safely handcuffed the subject, placed him in the patrol car and conveyed him St. Anthony's for a psychological evaluation.

The dedication, patience, exemplary communication skills and empathy shown by Police Officer Amaro kept this man from causing his own death or inflicting serious self-injury.
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Officer Thomas Atchison
Overland Police Department
Nominated by Sgt. Theresa Cover

Officer Atchison was first on the scene when responding to a potential suicide. Atchison located the male subject in a field behind the subject's apartment. He was holding a handgun to his head, stating he planned to kill himself. Atchison began speaking to the subject and requested he drop his gun; however, the subject refused. The subject stated he was adamant he wanted to die, but he didn't want to harm any officers and he didn't want his children to find his body. Atchison continued speaking with the subject, trying various themes in an attempt to persuade him to reconsider his plan. His continuing conversation established rapport with the subject. The genuine concern and efforts Atchison displayed led the subject to trust his sincerity and intentions. After about 10 minutes, the subject released the magazine from the gun, but still held it to his head. Shortly after, and with continued persuasion from Atchison, he tossed the weapon aside and agreed to go to the hospital for treatment. The weapon was recovered and it did still contain a chambered round.

Throughout this ordeal, Atchison maintained his composure exceptionally well. When faced with an armed subject who could have easily turned the gun on him, Atchison communicated effectively and de-escalated the situation. As a result, the most positive conclusion was reached. A life was saved and no officers or bystanders were hurt.

It was later learned that the subject suffered from alcoholism and depression. He had been unemployed for several months and was overwhelmed about how to support his family. The subject later sent Atchison a handwritten letter containing messages from him, his wife and their kids, thanking Atchison for saving his life. He also reported he has maintained his sobriety, recovered financially and enjoys a closer-than-ever relationship with his family.
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Officer Thomas Carney
University City Police Department
Nominated by Sgt. Dana Morley

Officer Carney responded to "check the welfare" of a man who had sent out several text messages to friends and family, indicating he was feeling depressed and suicidal. As Carney gathered information, he learned the individual had not shown up for work, which was unusual. The man was very depressed over the recent death of his parents and aunt. Additionally, he was distraught about one of his brothers being sentenced to life in prison. Carney also learned the man owned a pistol.

With no answer at the door, Carney requested the building's maintenance staff to unlock the door. When Carney and his assist announced their presence but received no answer, they went into the apartment with weapons drawn. They saw no one, but the bathroom door was closed and locked; the light was on. Again, no response to the officer's verbal communication, so maintenance was asked to unlock the bathroom door. There, Carney found the man seated on the toilet, conscious and uninjured, but holding a semi-automatic pistol against the right side of his head. He was looking down at the floor, crying and shaking.

Carney took a position of cover and notified dispatch. He began talking to the subject, acknowledging the difficult situation he was in, but all the while encouraging him to put the gun down. Even though the subject never responded, Carney persisted, and after several minutes, the man slowly lowered the gun, placing it on the floor at his feet.

When the subject did not follow verbal commands to stand and step away from the weapon, Carney maneuvered in the small space to physically grab the man's hands. Carney helped him stand up and escorted him to the living room, where handcuffs were applied. The assisting officer confirmed the gun was fully loaded with a round in the chamber.

Carney conveyed the subject to the hospital for treatment and completed an affidavit for a 96-hour mental health evaluation. He tried talking with the man again at the hospital, but the subject was too despondent to reply. Carney took the next step of contacting the man's brother, who also lived in the apartment, but was not home at the time.

Officer Carney's level head and experience allowed him to turn a dangerous and potentially deadly situation to a satisfactory conclusion where an individual in crisis obtained the mental health treatment he needed.
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Officer Albert Recht
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department
Nominated by Maria Needham, Community Support Worker, Independence Center

This nominator made her first-ever call to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, requesting a CIT officer to check the welfare of one of the organization's consumers. Officer Recht returned the call and learned the woman in question was at risk for self-injury or suicide. Other recent incidents were causing a sense of alarm: the consumer had not returned phone calls to staff, her boyfriend reported to staff that the woman had closed herself up in her bedroom, and earlier in the day, staff could not get her to open the front door to talk with them.

As promised, Officer Recht called Ms. Needham when he arrived at the subject's home. Since no one was answering the door, Recht requested contact information on anyone who might have a key. This turned out to be the boyfriend. Patiently, Officer Recht made multiple calls to the boyfriend, continuing to wait for him to arrive on the scene.

Once inside, Officer Recht pushed through a barricaded bedroom door to reach the subject, who was not very responsive. Noticing medicine bottles on the dresser, Recht called EMS. When EMS arrived, the woman was alert and refused to go to the hospital. As his on-scene investigation continued, Recht could not find any signs of self-harm and the pill bottles appeared to be full and untouched. He made several calls to Ms. Needham throughout this process, keeping her informed of her client's status, but also letting her know that at this point, there was nothing more he could do. As he left the scene, the subject again barricaded herself in the bedroom. When the nominator thanked him for letting her know the subject was safe, he replied that he takes these situations very seriously.

Within 24 hours of this incident, the consumer checked herself into the hospital. When Ms. Needham visited, the woman asked her to find the name of the officer who had come to her house. She stated she wanted to apologize for being difficult and rude to him. She then said she wanted to thank him for being so caring and speaking so calmly to her when she was at her worst.

Obviously, this officer took this "check the welfare" call very seriously, and his patience and caring demeanor made quite an impact on this woman while she was in a mental health crisis.
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Officer Jeremy Horton
Olivette Police Department
Nominated by Lou Reuss , Logos School

As a result of an altercation between two students, this nominator arrived on the scene to see that staff had detained a male student outside the Student Support Center. Inside, chairs were strewn about, pens and pencils were everywhere and folders were scattered on the desk. As the nominator entered the room, a female student was in the middle of the room, screaming and stomping on the other student's phone. As he attempted to stop her, she picked up the phone and threw it at the door. Her erratic behavior continued to escalate to the point of grabbing a pair of scissors and holding them to her throat. The nominator and a therapist were able to calm her down enough to start cleaning up the room, but she continued to threaten the other student as he yelled at her outside the door.

Officer Horton approached this agitated student with great compassion. He spoke softly, while working with her to address her implied threat by putting scissors to her throat. He continued to monitor her emotional state, asking how she was doing and if she needed anything. The nominator and therapist recall Horton listening to the student's sometimes incoherent ranting and how impressed they were by his ability to decipher her rambling and get her focused enough to answer his questions. He blamed neither student but addressed her needs and concerns by being a present, empathic and calming force. He really tried to make her feel cared for. When discussing the phone issue, the student once again became agitated, and once again Officer Horton communicated in a way that helped her stay calm. It was impressive to see.

This was the first of two incidents between students that Officer Horton responded to and his second time with this particular female student. Officer Horton always demonstrates a high level of compassion. He is professional while offering students suggestions on how they might handle conflict in the future. He calms them by using a soft, but direct tone. Conflicts between students who suffer from mental illness occur quite often in this school. Officer Horton's ability to diffuse and help de-escalate students is essential for their safety and safety of the whole school.

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Officer John Reddick
St. Louis County Police Department - Affton Southwest Precinct
Nominated by Lt. Mike Reifschneider

In early 2014, Officer Reddick responded to a call about a male subject standing at a front window of his home, exposing himself and performing an indecent act. There was a recent history of similar incidents, some of which occurred on the property, but outside the home. Because the caller was fearful of reporting this incident, Reddick canvassed the area for other witnesses. He discovered the homeowner had recently died, and the subject - his grandson - now resided there. Through good police work, Reddick obtained contact information for an out-of-state aunt, who provided information about the subject's history of emotional issues, and how they worsened after the grandfather's death. Hoping to coordinate a long-term solution, Reddick coordinated the aunt's arrival in St. Louis to coincide with an assessment he scheduled with BHR. Two days later, the assessment indicated mental health treatment was needed. With assistance of the aunt and BHR, the subject agreed to several days of treatment at Hyland Center.

At the time of this nomination in April, no further incidents have been reported. Officer Reddick's decision on how to address this situation brought resolution to a neighborhood and created an opportunity for a person in crisis to receive the mental health services he needed.
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Officer Justin Pugh
Warrenton Police Department
Nominated by Jamie Bartin, Community Mental Health Liaison, Crider Health Center

Warrenton Police Department had been receiving phone calls from a woman once - or more - a day, reporting serious crimes she believed her neighbor was committing against her. The department, and particularly Officer Pugh, had responded time and time again. They realized they were not encountering a woman who was a victim of crime, but a woman who was very mentally ill and in need of support. Officer Pugh reached out to a community resource - Crider Health Center - to connect the woman to appropriate mental health services. As a result, she is doing much better and calls to the police department have been greatly reduced. This nominator comments that Officer Pugh consistently displayed empathy, patience and kindness when working with the subject. She also reports Officer Pugh does an excellent job of staying in contact with her, displaying his willingness to work with other agencies to help a person in need of mental health services.
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Sgt. Aaron Roediger
St. Louis County Police - South County Precinct
Nominated by Sgt. John Manestar

A radio assignment for a domestic disturbance reported that a man had assaulted his fiancé and fired a shot from a .380 pistol inside the home. The man was reportedly still inside; the woman had fled to safety at a neighbor's home. Additional information from Communications indicated the subject had bipolar illness, was severely depressed and contemplating suicide.

When officers arrived, they found the subject on the front porch, yelling obscenities and waving his arms. He appeared to be holding a handgun. Seeing the police, the man quickly went inside. To reduce the possibility of danger to the subject or neighbors, and to prevent the subject from exiting the home with a firearm, containment was set up around the residence. Due to the dangerous situation, Sgt. Roediger obtained the subject's cell phone number. After two failed attempts, the consumer finally answered his phone.

Sgt. Roediger engaged the man in conversation, building rapport and trust. After several minutes, he convinced the subject to exit the residence with his hands up and to surrender peacefully. The subject was taken into custody safely without incident and subsequently conveyed for a psychological evaluation to St. Anthony's Hospital.

The patience, outstanding communication skills, and compassion shown by Sgt. Roediger toward the consumer prevented serious injury or death, and also averted a major incident involving a barricaded subject.
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Captain Richard Ganninger
Bridgeton Police Department
Nominated by Major Mark Mossotti
Reader's note: Captain Ganninger can't attend today… he is meeting his son at the base on his return from Afghanistan. Announce that Officer Ganninger is not able to join us today and Major Mark Mossotti will accept the award on his behalf. Then read the scenario as usual.

The Bridgeton Police Department encountered female KW in May 2013. Initial contacts seemed innocent enough, but eventually it became obvious she was infatuated with police officers and may have a mental health problem.

Within two months, incidents included her disrobing in front of the police department and a series of shoplifting cases designed to require intervention from Bridgeton law enforcement. KW continued illegal behavior in order to be arrested, repeatedly acted out sexually, and began focusing on specific officers. Additionally, she displayed delusional behavior at municipal offices on an almost daily basis at all hours of the day and night.

Many officers attempted to persuade KW to seek professional assistance and gave her directional advice to do so. She appeared to listen, but would not be deterred from her need for police officer contact. KW had never posed risk of physical injury to self or others, but winter was approaching and she was about to be evicted. With no family or potential place to live, her situation had become dangerous.

The matter drew the attention of Captain Ganninger who took comprehensive control of the situation and established a plan to find permanent help for KW. First, he acquired temporary housing through a shelter. He discovered KW was an Honorably Discharged Veteran of the Coast Guard, so he contacted the VA, and she was placed in psychiatric treatment. This stopped her personal contact with the police, but phone calls, text messages and letters continued. Ganninger compiled all this as evidence of her behavior with regard to treatment. He arranged for VA personnel to meet with the Bridgeton Prosecuting Attorney and present its information on the subject, as well as attending all court sessions.

A probation violation and arrest in January 2014 resulted in discussions between Captain Ganninger and KW's sister in Seattle, WA. The sister was finally granted Power of Attorney, and KW moved to Seattle, where she is now under the care and the supervision of family.

Captain Ganninger's patient and dedicated actions over an 8-month period resulted in KW receiving the proper care she deserved and being reunited with her family, which prevented her from further criminal prosecution.
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Sgt. Tim Heimann
St. John Police Department
Nominated by Danielle Conrey, Community Mental Health Liaison, BJC Behavioral Health

Sgt. Hiemann contacted this Community Mental Health Liaison about an incident with a consumer who had committed a burglary the night before. He informed the Liaison that the consumer had gone to Wellsville, MO to stay with a friend after the incident. Sgt. Hiemann knew the subject had a mental illness and he was concerned about getting help for him. The Liaison contacted the consumer's family and the Liaison for the Wellsville area. Because of everyone's collective information and the writing of an affidavit, an involuntary commitment was possible. The consumer was able to receive treatment at a hospital near his parents' home, and he is now engaged in mental health services.

By looking at this individual as more than just a criminal, Sgt. Heimann realized the need to reach out to the mental health community to find appropriate services. The subject is now beginning the road to stabilization. Although the act of making a phone call may seem small, Sgt. Hiemann's care and concern has made a significant impact in this consumer's life.
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Officer James Borzillo
St. Louis County Police Department - Jennings Detail
Nominated by Sgt. John Wall

Sgt. Wall and several officers responded to a residence for an attempted suicide, but could not make contact with the subject. Assessing the situation, Sgt. Wall believed the woman had left the home and was possibly driving around in the area. One hour later, Officer Borzillo located her unoccupied minivan, but a neighborhood canvass did not result in finding the woman or anyone who had seen her.

When officers returned to the residence, lights were now on, indicating the subject had returned. Attempts to contact her were unsuccessful. Believing the woman either had committed or was attempting suicide, a decision was made to force an entry. Borzillo unlocked a window with a pocket knife and announced his presence. When no response was received, he climbed through the window, and in a bedroom, found the subject actively hanging herself. Borzillo cut the rope, placed her on the floor and loosened the rope so she could breathe. As she became more responsive, she asked Borzillo, "Can a person be left alone to kill themself?" The woman was conveyed to the hospital for treatment and eventually admitted on a 96-hour involuntary commitment. This officer's perseverance and timely action no doubt saved this woman's life.
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Sgt. Matthew Bargen
St. Peters Police Department
Nominated by Lt. Tim Snavely, St. Peters and
Jamie Bartin, Community Mental Health Liaison, Crider Health Center

Over a nine-month period, the St. Peters Police Department responded to almost two dozen calls from a female who was challenged both physically and mentally. Often, the woman was combative and would harm personnel who were attempting to assist her. With more than one psychiatric diagnosis, the female resident's calls usually related to self-injury or suicide attempts. Sgt. Bargen recognized that this repetitive cycle of transports and completing affidavits for involuntary commitment were ineffective for the resident and a costly burden to police, hospital staff and EMS.

Knowing a different approach was needed, Sgt. Bargen contacted Crider Health Center. To provide as much input as possible, he participated in a Crider team meeting in January to help develop a better solution for the subject. Because of this collaborative effort, the subject is receiving the care she needs from Crider and there have been no unnecessary or excessive phone calls to the police.

Ms. Bartin's nomination states how Sgt. Bargen's professional and empathetic demeanor was noted by everyone on the Crider team. She also acknowledges he is an outstanding example of how law enforcement's partnership with community agencies allows all involved to treat individuals who have mental illness with dignity and respect.

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