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Tom Davis

Tom Davis

Posted: October 13, 2008 02:51 PM

A month ago, I wrote about how I'm one of the few people who know Walt Monegan is without having to read a news story or a Wikipedia entry on Sarah Palin.

Now he's become one of the most talked-about individuals in the 2008 presidential campaign -- and his profile was never bigger than it was on Friday, despite the fact that he's an accomplished and nationally respected trailblazer in the treatment of people with mental illness.

An Alaska ethics inquiry found on Friday that Gov. Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, abused her authority by pressuring subordinates -- most notably Monegan, whom Palin appointed to be public safety commissioner -- to fire a state trooper involved in a feud with her family. The finding cast a cloud over John McCain's controversial choice of running mate for the Nov. 4 election, according to Reuters.

For Monegan, however, it was "vindication." "It sounds like they've validated my belief and opinions. And that tells me I'm not totally out in left field,'' Monegan was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story.

But some would argue that it was also long overdue recognition for a man whose prior accomplishments would barely get anything more than a feature story in the Anchorage Daily News.

He's considered a trailblazer in the mental health community because, as chief of the Anchorage Police Department, Monegan and his staff were teaching its officers how to deal with a mental health crisis, and serving as a model for other police departments in the country -- such as Memphis -- who were doing similar things.

I interviewed Monegan for 90 minutes in February 2005 when I was one of six people in the nation who received a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship to write about mental health issues. I chose the judicial treatment of mental health as a topic -- and mental health experts and police departments throughout the country all gave me similar advice.

One after the other, they pointed me in two directions -- Memphis, and Walt Monegan.

I chose Alaska because I was intrigued by this very large, though isolated state that has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. But it was also way ahead of other states in terms of mental health treatment. The state has mental health courts where the judges act more like counselors than magistrates. A defendant who suffers from schizophrenia can count on getting at least one chance to avoid a hard prison term by getting counseling, taking medication or doing whatever they can to manage their illness.

Then there was Monegan, who was inspired to change the department's approach, he said, because he was tired of watching the same people -- all displaying symptoms of mental disorders -- getting arrested over and over, only to end up back in the streets, untreated.

Some of these people were living in hotels in Anchorage after having walked as much as 100 miles from the state's isolated towns -- where treatment was non-existent -- to get help. Their only other option was to fly because few roads connect Alaska's northern towns with the south. But those plane rides can be anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a piece.

Others were involved in serious crimes -- such as bank robberies and hostage situations -- that Monegan himself responded to. Chances were that Monegan knew them, too, because suspects with a history of mental illness tend to be repeat offenders. They go to jail, where treatment also is non-existent, and find themselves back on the streets once they've served their sentence.

"We've all watched young guys grow up and die, or they end up in jail," said Monegan.

 

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