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The Guy Sarah Palin Fired Was a Trailblazer, Too

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I may be one of the few people in the continental United States who could tell you who Walt Monegan is without having to read a news story or a Wikipedia entry on Sarah Palin.

All you probably know is that Palin, the Alaska governor whom John McCain picked as his vice presidential running mate, is being investigated because of claims that she or others in her administration abused their power or improperly pressured Monegan to fire a state trooper who is Palin's ex-brother-in-law.

Palin dismissed Monegan
from his state public safety commissioner post in July, and has provided several explanations for the dismissal since then. But there has been a consistent and ongoing effort to discredit Monegan and impugn his integrity, and dismiss the case as nothing more than a politically motivated hack job.

I interviewed Monegan for 90 minutes in February 2005 when, as chief of the Anchorage Police Department, he was presiding over a crime prevention program that was revolutionary in terms of treating people with mental illness.

That year, 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:

"Go to Alaska," they said, in so many words. "Talk to Walt Monegan."

As I wrote later, in an April 2005 article for The Record of Bergen County, N.J., many in Alaska suffer from the cold, the constant darkness and the isolation of the state's mountain towns that are inaccessible by car. The state consistently has had among the highest suicide rates in the nation.

Monegan's department was 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.

At the time, 10 percent of his 330 officers were "crisis-intervention" trainees who were learning how to speak to, deal with and ultimately handle people with psychiatric disorders. They were attempting to wipe away the "psycho-killer" approach to handling crime scenes that almost always yielded the same results: somebody at the crime scene dies; or somebody gets arrested, then thrown in jail, then released from jail and, ultimately, commits another crime.

Monegan understood this. He was a native Alaskan who, according to his biography, was raised in "bush Alaska" in a town called Nyac, by his maternal grandparents. At that time, according to his biography, Nyac was a gold mining community with a population of 54 people and a one-room schoolhouse. "People used to drive their cars for miles on the frozen ice," he said.

He 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.

One man, in particular, was involved in a hostage situation that Monegan, as a patrol officer, responded to. Prior to that, his rap sheet involved mostly petty thefts; this time, he was armed and dangerous.

Monegan hoped to talk the man down. But it was too late. By the time he got there, the man took his own life.

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

Out in front of his department's efforts was a young, energetic and God-fearing police officer named Wendi Shackelford who arranged my interview with Monegan and, like Palin, considered her faith to be her central inspiration. "I think God is calling me to do this," she said.

I rode with Shackelford as she drove Anchorage's ice-ridden streets on a 10-degree February day and watched her deal with the various "crises" that police officers run into every day and go well beyond their job descriptions - but force them to play the role of amateur psychologists because nobody else will.

With Monegan's backing and encouragement, Shackelford had "assigned" herself to a young man who became delusional. His father gave him money and shelter. But nothing helped - instead, he broke into houses, hoping to find a woman who he thought was being kidnapped.

As a dispatcher's voice blared over her radio, Shackelford was busy listening on her earpiece as she fielded repeated cellphone calls about the man while navigating Anchorage's streets.

"He went into another house?" she said. "I knew it was a matter of time...Has he been self-mutilating?"

The officer then made a litany of calls - to psychiatric screeners at the local hospital, to the man's family and then to the local "mental health court," where he would find compassion, understanding and options. She ultimately got the man to agree to her plan, and to get treatment.

"I just try to get people to negotiate," she said. "We don't get paid extra for this. It's a matter of the heart."