By Heather Wright
Police officers are not therapists or counselors, and yet they must respond to calls that involve people in mental distress. How can police departments respond more effectively to these calls, and in ways that de-escalate, rather than exacerbate, situations?
Adrienne Augustus started working as the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) media relations and mental health program manager in September. Augustus is committed to using her background in journalism, public relations and mental health advocacy to support the HCPD’s efforts to become more transparent and more adept at responding to mental illness, both in- and outside of the department.
A Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law article, published online the same month that Leonard Shand was killed, noted that mental illness was involved in almost 25% of the approximately 1,000 incidents in which police officers shot and killed people in the U.S. in 2018. Shand himself reportedly demonstrated signs of psychological distress during the Sept. 26, 2019, shooting incident. He repeatedly yelled to officers, “You are going to have to kill me here!” according to an expert report commissioned by the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s office.
The new HCPD position is two-fold, as explained by Chief Amal Awad during a Sept. 18 interview: “Now we have clear, timely communications but also mental health programming in the works for both the police department and the community at large.”
Augustus’ fit for her media relations role jumps off her resume: She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland (UMD). She worked as a television news reporter in Nevada for eight years, followed by six years in public relations and corporate communications.
Augustus went on to complete her master’s degree in public administration at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2020.
The mental health experience Augustus brings to her position is less apparent in her resume but strongly written on the pages of her personal life. She had a family member who dealt with bipolar disorder, “but my family didn’t talk about it.” Augustus also lost two high school classmates, both men of color, to struggles with mental illness when they were in their early 20s.
In a follow-up email, Augustus elaborated on the loss of one of these men, who was also a middle school and college classmate of hers. In 2003, this friend, a 24-year-old African American, died in a police shooting. “One evening, after a series of tragic events during which he was in extreme emotional distress, and armed with a knife, [he was shot and killed by] four police officers in New Jersey,” wrote Augustus. “What occurred was well outside of any kind of behavior his family or friends had ever witnessed with him. His death was shocking and a devastating loss.”
Augustus served in several roles with the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) in Nevada and was recruited to the national office in Arlington, Va., which brought her back to the DMV area in 2018.
Her time at NAMI taught Augustus about disparities in mental health services for communities of color, both arising from and contributing to differences in cultural attitudes towards mental health.
Last year, while still pursuing her master’s degree, Augustus founded the nonprofit A Beautiful Mind, Inc. “to address mental health challenges present in communities of color,” according to its website. She held the inaugural fundraiser in October 2019 at the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center in North Brentwood. “And by the end of June, we were giving away $22,315 to groups across the country that were creating culturally competent mental health services,” said Augustus.
Although quick to point out that she is not a practitioner and can not diagnose mental illness, Augustus is a NAMI-trained support group facilitator and cares deeply about mental health advocacy.
“I have a unique perspective on mental health and law enforcement. I have seen the good, the bad and the very, very sad,” said Augustus. “I now have an opportunity to combine all of my experiences — the deeply personal ones — with my diverse professional background to make a positive impact in this community.”
A conversation Augustus had with Awad prior to being offered the new HCPD position convinced her that Awad was serious about incorporating more mental health supports, and that hiring her wouldn’t be merely “window dressing.”
Awad is already impressed with what she’s seen from Augustus. “In our short time working together, she has proven herself to be a very valuable partner, employee, communications expert and also an expert when it comes to mental health,” said Awad, adding that Augustus was very relatable, personable and highly qualified. “We’re very grateful to have her with us. And she’s a Terrapin.”
At the end of her interview, Augustus emphasized, “I just want to impress upon my neighbors, because I live in Hyattsville, that this is the beginning of change that we all want. My presence signifies that. The work that the chief was already doing signifies that. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to Mr. Shand’s death.”
And A Beautiful Mind Inc. will continue. Augustus plans to keep guiding the foundation as the board president, trusting that her board of directors will find ways to continue to keep the strong momentum and grow the foundation. “We’re just really getting started in terms of what we know we can do,” said Augustus.