NH has spent years trying to prevent police from killing people in mental distress, but advocates say gaps remain
The two police officers who responded to the home of 17-year old Mischa Fay on New Year’s Day had met him before.
Police logs show both officers had been to the boy’s Gilford home in prior months, responding to a series of mental health distress calls placed by his parents.
But what happened when those officers arrived on Jan. 1, and what level of training they had to deal with a teenager in crisis, remains unknown. Less than two minutes after arriving at the Fay home, one officer fired his Taser, and the other his gun, killing Mischa, who was allegedly armed with a knife.
In recent years, New Hampshire has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to prevent exactly these kinds of violent and sometimes fatal outcomes for people in mental health crises. That includes a statewide system for sending counselors to meet with people in distress, as well as a new intensive training for law enforcement officers who encounter people in the midst of a mental health crisis. In the past year, the state also purchased a psychiatric hospital for children to expand capacity for young people needing intensive care.
But on almost every count, those goals of reform remain unfulfilled.
Though the new police training for crisis intervention was launched more than three years ago, fewer than 1 in 5 sworn officers in New Hampshire have completed it to date. Youth and adults in psychiatric distress are still regularly forced to wait inside of emergency rooms due to a lack of dedicated treatment beds at New Hampshire hospitals. And policymakers have yet to formalize a recommended task force that would review police interactions with people like Mischa Fay to identify “opportunities for prevention” and ways police can improve their interactions.
The majority of fatal police shootings in New Hampshire in recent years involved citizens in mental distress, according to previous reporting by the Concord Monitor and NHPR. In many of these incidents, the person who was killed was wielding a weapon themselves.
The officers who responded to Fay’s home on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee were wearing body cameras. Until the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office completes its investigation into the incident — which could take months — those videos won’t be released to the public, meaning there’s no immediate way to know if officers followed protocol during their brief encounter with Fay.
For mental health care advocates, the teenager’s death is a stark reminder of the gaps that remain and the challenges law enforcement, families and caregivers face in trying to protect someone in distress.
“Whenever an incident like this occurs I think we all stop and ask: what are things that might be done that could prevent future tragedies?” said Susan Stearns, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness New Hampshire.“I don’t know the training status for Gilford PD, and I don’t know the circumstances of this particular situation, but we do know that there is a need for continued investment in CIT [crisis intervention team] training.”
A gap in training
Mischa Fay’s obituary describes a boy in love with hockey and boating, a Star Trek junkie who also bonded with his father over collecting coins. His family also noted that he had suffered through “two years of declining health” and thanked doctors and nurses who worked with Mischa. (NHPR attempted to contact some members of the Fay family, but didn’t receive a response.)
That obituary, as well as police logs released by Gilford, are the only public information available related to Fay’s struggles. The 911 call logs in particular portray a child spiraling into mental distress and a system struggling to help him.
According to those files, in February 2022, Gilford police officers, including Sergeant Douglas Wall, responded to four 911 calls over a six-day period in which Fay’s parents expressed fear over what they described as a teenager “out of control” and “starting to unwind again.” He was ultimately transferred to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center for treatment.
In September, Wall and Officer Nathan Ayotte responded to a similar call, with Fay’s father telling officers his son had “trashed the house.” Fay was taken to Concord Hospital for treatment.
Police logs show Wall and Ayotte responded to another distress call at Fay’s home on Jan. 1. Fay’s mother told a dispatcher that her husband had locked himself in a room of the house because her son was “in a rage” and wielding a knife. Two minutes after arriving, Ayotte deployed a Taser, and Wall fired his gun.
Since 2019, NAMI NH has offered New Hampshire law enforcement officers training for these exact scenarios: an intensive 40-hour course that uses a series of role-playing exercises and discussions to give officers the skills they need to keep themselves and the person in crisis safe in an emergency.
But to-date, only 471 of the state’s approximately 2,900 sworn officers have completed the training, according to NAMI NH. It isn’t clear if the officers who responded to the Fay home on New Year’s Day were among them: The Gilford Police Department declined to provide NHPR with the officers’ training history, and the agency also declined to provide any documents related to its broader trainings on responding to mental health crisis calls.
Starting this year, New Hampshire law enforcement officers are required to go through 10 hours of annual training in topics including implicit bias, ethics and de-escalation to maintain their certification. By 2025, officers will be required to complete 24 in-service training hours annually, not including mandatory firearms and first aid training.
John Scippa, director of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, said expanding access to crisis intervention training is a priority — so much so that the agency is considering revising its police academy curriculum to include the full course.
“The unfortunate truth is, oftentimes the police are called to a situation that the people who are looking for help, they just don't know who else to call,” said Scippa. “And so being a police officer in this day and age is a very demanding position in that the officers really need to have as many tools in the tool box as they can fit to address these issues.”
As devastating as they are for the families of those killed, Scippa said that law enforcement officers are also often traumatized by these calls.
“They have a matter of seconds to make these decisions,” he said, with officers and the families of those in distress faced with the consequences.
Learning from past deadly encounters
Recognizing the need for enhanced crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers, lawmakers passed a bill last year to increase funding for this kind of training and to study ways the state might prevent fatal encounters between police and people in crisis. Gov. Chris Sununu signed the two-part measure into law last July.
The law allocated $1.1 million — a fraction of the nearly $4 million originally proposed by the bill’s sponsors — to cover the costs of staging more trainings, including expenses incurred by local police departments for overtime or backfilling officers for a week.
The new law also called for the creation of a study committee to determine if the state should launch a formal task force that would review all police killings of people in mental health crises. It would be modeled in part on a group that currently reviews child fatalities in the state to see if similar deaths could be prevented in the future.
During a series of meetings last fall, that study committee heard testimony from mental health advocates and law enforcement leaders. They ultimately issued a report recommending that the Legislature create a mental health incident review board, managed within the Department of Health and Human Services under strict confidentiality rules to protect the victims and their families. The group would be charged with investigating the circumstances surrounding a police killing of a person in mental distress, including what services were available to the victim, as well as how the officer engaged with them before using lethal force.
But at this point, it isn’t clear if or when lawmakers will heed that recommendation. The creation of a formal review committee isn’t included in any bills filed publicly for the current legislative session. Sen. Sharon Carson, a Republican from Londonderry who chaired the group, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Sen. Sue Prentiss, a Democrat from West Lebanon who previously served as chief of emergency medicine for the New Hampshire Department of Safety, served on the recommendation committee. She said the proposed task force could help guide new regulations or best practices.
“You could holistically look at a situation that resulted in a fatality and try to assess: is there something we could do differently as policy makers or regulators that would change an outcome?” said Prentiss.
But she noted that based on her work with the Child Fatality Review Committee in previous years, sometimes tragic results are unavoidable.
“There’s not always a clean solution,” she said. “Even with everything lining up as it should, there are still things that can’t always be predictable.”
An alternative to 911
The efforts to better equip police to respond to these kinds of distress calls comes after the state's broader mental health infrastructure has for decades struggled to meet the needs of people in crisis.
From long waits inside emergency rooms for treatment, to delays in getting appointments for outpatient care, people in need of all levels of psychiatric support have often faced barriers in New Hampshire.
And when they couldn’t wait any longer, they frequently only had one option: a call placed to 911 that would trigger a response by law enforcement, rather than mental health professionals.
Legislation, lawsuits and a more recent flood of money in the form of federal COVID relief funds have spurred New Hampshire to do more to expand and improve its network of care for both children and adults in mental health crises.
In 2022, the state formally launched an ambitious plan to connect people in acute psychiatric or substance misuse distress with mental health responders instead of law enforcement. An alternative to dialing 911, the Rapid Response Access Point system allows residents to call or text a single number, 1-833-710-6477, to connect with treatment providers, including mobile crisis teams. (People can also call the national suicide and crisis support line by dialing 988.)
In the Lakes Region, where Mischa Fay lived, there have been approximately 1,000 mobile dispatches over the course of the initiative’s first year, according to Christine Alvarez, the Chief Operating Officer of Lakes Regional Mental Health Center. She said a large portion of local those dispatches were repeat visits to the same callers. Of the 371 people seen by a mobile dispatch team in the Lakes Region last year, 19% were minors.
Alvarez said many calls come from people experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis, but don’t require emergency responders. Often, dispatchers are able to work with people in distress over the phone to schedule mental health appointments in the following days.
But Alvarez cautioned that the rapid response system is not always the solution. If the person has a weapon or there’s a possibility of imminent threat, she advises people to call 911.
“You have to think about who's at the end of the line, and who's going to be dispatched,” said Alvarez. “So when you're calling 988, if they can't resolve it over the phone, then they may send a mobile crisis team. But that's a clinician and a case manager.”
Alvarez said the mobile crisis unit works closely with local police departments, including Gilford’s, in responding to some distress calls.
“All our hearts go out to the family” she said. “We want to focus on prevention and upstream: what can we do with our community to help people get the care that they need?”