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Milwaukee PD employee’s crisis shines a light on mental health, criminal justice system failings

Ashley Peck, a 911 dispatcher employed by the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD), sat beside her attorney, waiting anxiously for a judge to call her name. Peck was in court on Jan. 4 charged with felony injury to a police officer that occurred when she suffered a mental health crisis on Oct. 23, biting an officer sent to her home. When the judge finally called Peck’s name, confusion quickly spread from the bench to the gallery. Perplexed, Judge Maria Dorsey asked court staff, “you mean there’s no more felony?”

A prosecutor pulled Peck’s attorney, Travis Schwantes, into the hallway for a hurried conversation. The charges for injuring an officer had been downgraded to a misdemeanor charge for possessing a controlled substance. Schwantes re-entered the courtroom, shaking his head, and entered a not guilty plea. It was the latest chapter in Peck’s odyssey through the criminal legal and mental health systems.

Peck’s experience shines a light on the holes in the Milwaukee Police Department’s emergency mental health response plan. It raises questions about the treatment of an MPD employee who was booked into jail, suspended, and then offered her job back in a dizzying series of reversals that illustrate the vague and sometimes arbitrary police department protocols when it comes to mental health cases.

Ashley Peck (Photo courtesy of Ashley Peck)

Demand for mental health access has increased in the Milwaukee-area, and other parts of the state where hospital space is sparse. At the over-crowded Milwaukee County jail, where six people died over a 14 month period from alleged suicides and other causes, Peck’s case is one of a long series of alleged instances of inadequate mental health care. As part of the budget, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors recently approved an audit of the jail to look into inadequate mental health staffing, among other issues contributing to in-custody deaths. In October, Omar Wesley, who was deprived of schizophrenia meds for 65 days by staff in the jail reached a $1 million settlement with the county. “It frustrates every goal of the rational sentencing model to send people to a place where they’re harmed, they’re made worse, because at a basic level their mental health needs aren’t met,” Wesley’s attorney, Craig Mastantuono, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Peck’s case also shows how gray-market substances available from legal vendors can cause harm to people in Wisconsin, a state that lags its neighbors in decriminalizing and regulating cannabis. This is part of a growing problem nationwide. The New York Times has reported on the rise in unregulated products sold at gas stations and convenience stores that contain dangerous or untested substances.

A story beginning with pain, and a bite

In late October, Peck went to a convenience store in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Born with clubfoot, a condition which twists feet out of shape, Peck experiences chronic pain and has limited mobility despite multiple surgeries starting in infancy. “Most of the time, in most cases, it’s essentially cured in childhood, but for me it was not,” Peck told Wisconsin Examiner. “So I’ve attempted to get help through my primary care provider, from pain clinics, from orthopedic institutes, and I have been left empty-handed and just to face this pain every single day on my own.”

After seeing a Facebook ad promoting the use of Delta-8 for chronic pain, she went to a nearby smoke shop to learn more. But Peck found the store’s employee to be less than knowledgeable about their products. She was looking for Delta-8, and preferred a product that wouldn’t induce anxiety which she’d experienced with other cannabis products before.

“He didn’t really have any answers to my questions, and then he just pulled out all the Delta-8 selections he had in edible form,” said Peck. “And I picked one without really looking at it, and I took it thinking it was Delta-8.” Without accurate information, Peck was unaware that the 100mg she consumed was a massive dose, especially for someone unaccustomed to cannabis.

Hemp plant in Wisconsin Sept. 2018 (provided by DATCP) Hemp plant in Wisconsin Sept. 2018 (provided by DATCP)

An hour passed before Peck noticed any effects. What followed was what Peck described as a “very terrifying and traumatizing psychosis.” Peck recalled believing that she was dying, hearing voices of spirits urging her to “the other side,” and being unable to move from her bed.

“It’s a very scary feeling, something that I’ve never felt before and that I hope to never feel again until the actual time of my death comes, because it’s terrifying,” said Peck. “Then I realized that I was not dying, and then I just went into fight mode.”

Peck said she managed to retrieve the Narcan she has kept at home since she began working in the harm-reduction field, worrying that the product she took had been contaminated with something like fentanyl. Narcan is used to reverse an opioid overdose. After the dose, she fell to the floor, briefly passing out before calling 911. When she woke up, Peck, still hallucinating, had come to believe that she’d been shot, she said.

As a 911 dispatcher herself, Peck told Wisconsin Examiner, “I would never call 911 saying I was shot if I didn’t actually believe it.”

Police who responded to the call informed her that she hadn’t been shot, and a Bell Ambulance later transported Peck to the hospital where she said she continued to hallucinate voices chattering various unsettling things. She recalled urinating on herself, though her memory is hazy. Peck was later told that she bit a police officer while physical restraints were being applied. Medical staff injected Peck with multiple doses of benzodiazepine, used as sedatives and anti-anxiety medications.

Bell Ambulance reports and body camera footage shared with Wisconsin Examiner confirm many aspects of Peck’s story. A patient care report from Bell noted that Peck, “was not answering questions appropriately but would obey commands sometimes.” It noted that, “patient activated EMS and stated that she had been shot in the chest,” and that medical staff found her to be, “atraumatic but agitated and behaving inexplicably.” The report also stated, “patient was ranting about wanting to stay in her body and not answering questions appropriately.”

Peck was described as having warm, dry, pale skin, screaming noises sometimes and laughing at other moments. The report states she pounded the walls of the ambulance as she was transported to the hospital. Body camera footage depicts Peck restrained to a hospital table by her hands and feet, surrounded by police and bewildered medical staff.

A Milwaukee police squad in front of the Municipal Court downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes) A Milwaukee police squad in front of the Municipal Court downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Drug test results shared with Wisconsin Examiner show that Peck tested positive for Delta-9 THC and THCA-A. While Wisconsin has remained one of the last holdouts nationally to keep medicinal and recreational cannabis use illegal, certain compounds have been available since hemp was legalized in 2018. Delta-9 is one of those compounds, and is allowed in hemp plants as long as it remains below a certain threshold. THCA-A is another compound found both in hemp and the plant more commonly known as marijuana. It is a non-psychoactive precursor to Delta-9 THC, meaning that it turns into Delta-9 when it is heated. THCA-A is sometimes regarded as “raw THC,” but because it’s a different compound, it exists in the gray areas created by a patchwork of laws prohibiting cannabis in most forms in states like Wisconsin. Delta-9 is not expressly restricted or prohibited in Wisconsin. Delta-8, which Peck said she believed she was purchasing, is usually regarded as less potent than Delta-9.

It would take weeks for Peck to learn more about the product she purchased. She later realized the edibles she took were advertised as THCA-A, not Delta-9. The experience has left Peck wary of cannabis products in non-dispensary stores, where reliable information can be scant to non-existent.

Internal Affairs investigations, booking, and jail

When Peck woke up from her ordeal, she found herself still in the hospital, and in the company of MPD Internal Affairs investigators. “They said they were going to investigate what happened, and that during that investigation I would be suspended,” said Peck.

“They also informed me that I would be interrogated at the [police] academy, and I was discharged from the hospital and taken into police custody.”

Peck was taken to District 5, not far from Riverwest, where she recalled officers laughing at her because of a lingering smell of urine. “I had to ask an officer who was booking me to give me a change of clothes,” said Peck. “So he gave me a paper jumpsuit.”

After booking, Peck said officers took her to the academy without shoes, despite the cold and her clubfoot. “I was walked through the academy that I had just been at no less than two years prior for training in an orange paper jumpsuit, and they took me into an interrogation room when I was still very much experiencing psychosis,” said Peck. “They were interviewing me and asking questions based on what happened that night.”

Peck was asked about calling 911, and biting the officer. She said she didn’t remember doing that. As someone who’s worked in the crisis intervention and mental health fields, Peck said she knows that human bites can be painful. “I know how it feels, it’s terrible and I would never inflict it on someone intentionally,” she said.

Peck wonders why Milwaukee’s Mobile Crisis Assessment Response Team (CART) wasn’t activated in her case. The team responds to mental health crises for all ages in the community. The Milwaukee police department has been criticized for officers injuring or arresting citizens during mental illness calls. The mobile unit which includes a police officer and a clinician, is designed to de-escalate mental health crises, providing services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to a county web page. However, the team can only respond to 1,900-3,000 of the 15,000-30,000 mental health-related calls made to emergency personnel a year. When Wisconsin Examiner first reached out to MPD on Dec. 18, they noted that “the injury [to] the officer was minor. The identity of the officer will not be revealed at this time.” MPD stated that the officer “had been trained/received Advanced Crisis Intervention Training (ACIT),” thus a non-police CART team wasn’t sent for Peck.

The MPD also confirmed that Peck, who’d been a 911 operator at MPD since 2022, had “no significant/prior disciplinary issues prior to this incident.”

The lack of a mental health intervention team, and charges she faces for doing something she had no control over, has left Peck questioning how many mentally ill people are arrested by police when other care is warranted. The original criminal complaint against her stated that she had “intentionally” injured a police officer, something Peck asserts is inaccurate given her mental state at the time.

After the interrogation, Peck was taken to the Milwaukee County Jail. Peck said she was cuffed to a bench for six hours. Eventually correctional officers took Peck into a booking area, changed her clothes, and put her in a holding area. There, a nurse offered to connect her with a social worker. But, Peck said, the social worker never arrived. Medications which Peck had been prescribed were not provided at the jail, and a behavioral health specialist she was told would come never showed up, she said. Two and a half largely sleepless days passed with little improvement. When she did sleep, Peck said she’d wake up experiencing a panic attack and in physical pain. Peck recalled that her cellmate asked the correctional officers to help her because of her psychiatric issues.

“They denied it,” said Peck. “They said if it’s not a medical emergency, that they’re not coming, and my cellmate was very upset because she couldn’t sleep through my screaming.”

The jail has faced accusations, particularly from incarcerated women, that mentally ill people and those without overt symptoms are sometimes housed together. These reports, and others about the conditions within the jail, have been denied by the Sheriff’s Office. Incarcerated people and their families have also accused the jail of providing inadequate medical care, limited out-of-cell time, inadequate access to mental health treatment and fostering a culture of indifference among correctional staff. The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment regarding Peck’s stay at the jail in time for this article’s publication.

 

I sometimes cry for help, I sometimes scream, I sometimes can’t move my body at all. It’s very scary.

– Ashley Peck, former Milwaukee PD 911 dispatcher

 

Upon her release from jail, Peck was taken back to the hospital where she was diagnosed with cracked ribs. That pain lasted for a month, Peck said, “it was excruciating.” Although her ribs healed, Peck still struggles with sleeping. “I wake up in the middle of night disassociating,” Peck said, describing it as an out-of-body state. “I’m in that reality that I was taken to during my psychosis, and I sometimes cry for help, I sometimes scream, I sometimes can’t move my body at all. It’s very scary.” Peck has sought treatment for these recurring problems, though much of her focus lately has been dealing with her felony charge, and unemployment.

Peck’s attempts to get more details about the internal investigations pending against her, and even documentation to confirm her suspension status, were refused by supervisors, Peck told Wisconsin Examiner. Unemployment benefits were also difficult to access, and Peck did not benefit from the support sworn personnel receive from the police union. Weeks passed without any updates or relief before Peck reached out to the Wisconsin Examiner.

The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes) The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

On Dec. 18, the Examiner sent a request for comment on Peck’s case to the Milwaukee PD. Less than 10 minutes after the department replied, Peck was contacted by an MPD supervisor who asked if she was planning on returning to work that day. It was the first time Peck had heard from her employer in weeks, she said. With the holidays approaching, Peck said she was out of town and unable to immediately return to work, and would prefer more details on her suspension and internal investigations. In the following days MPD continued contacting Peck, who’d opted to wait until her preliminary hearing on Jan. 4 before deciding what to do. That day, when her charges were downgraded to misdemeanor possession of a prescription medication, Peck was taken aback.

Wisconsin Examiner again reached out to MPD on Jan. 9 for comment on the developments. A spokesperson said that on Dec. 18, the district attorney’s office amended the complaint.

“Based on the amended charge Ashley Peck’s status was then changed from full suspension without pay and returning to duty,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “MPD supervisors did attempt to contact Ashley Peck multiple times but were unable to make contact. When contact with Ashley Peck was finally made, she was ordered to return to work. The inquiry made by WI Examiner was coincidental and did not in any way ‘kick-start’ the process as the review was ongoing.” The department has confirmed that Peck has two active internal investigations against her as of Jan. 9. MPD did not explain why, if Peck’s suspension had been lifted on Dec. 18, had the department told Wisconsin Examiner on that day that Peck was on full, unpaid suspension.

After her preliminary hearing, Peck told Wisconsin Examiner that she sent a resignation letter to MPD. “Dropping the felonies seconds before I went into court, it’s bizarre to me,” Peck she said. Although her journey through the criminal justice system from mental health crisis, to jail, to court is not over, she has decided she is done working for the police department. Her next court appearance on the controlled substance charge is scheduled for Jan. 25.

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F01%2F18%2Fmilwaukee-pd-employees-crisis-shines-a-light-on-mental-health-criminal-justice-system-failings%2F by Isiah Holmes

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