November 15. 2012 10:46PM

Police say man's arrest a 'breakdown' in hospital system

Union Leader Correspondent

SALEM - A 30-year-old man recently released from New Hampshire Hospital was arrested on Wednesday for charging at police officers with a large kitchen knife and threatening to "cut them up" before surrendering, police said.

Thomas J. Burke of Salem was ordered by a judge to be returned to the state hospital or remain held on $50,000 bail at the county jail for allegedly trashing his father's home and threatening police officers who responded to a 911 call. Burke's arrest was the second time in a month that Salem police dealt with his mental illness gone awry.

Salem Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten said the judge's bail order was welcome news for his officers, who have had more than 40 interactions with Burke in the last few years.

"Having that (order) doesn't change the fact that this kid is a danger to himself, his family, the community and the officers who deal with him on a regular basis," Patten said.

Burke has been arrested more than a dozen times, and has had other run-ins with the law that required four to five involuntary commitments in recent years, Patten said.

"The fact that he keeps getting out is a failure of the system, in my opinion," Patten said.

Police said they were unaware that Burke had been released from the hospital in recent days after being involuntary committed on Oct. 17. Bob McLeod, the hospital's chief executive officer, said on Thursday that his facility is required to work within the confines of state law that mandates a focus on patients' treatment and confidentiality -even when they are getting into trouble with the law.

"If a police officer called here, we wouldn't be able to tell them who is admitted here or their prospective discharge," McLeod said.

It's often a discussion that remains among the family, patient and local mental health provider just as at any other hospital, he said.

New Hampshire Hospital is designated to treat patients - not to serve as a jail or state prison, according to McLeod.

"Whenever possible, and within the confines of what we're required to do, we always like to work with law enforcement," McLeod said. The hospital's annual intake of 2,500 patients runs the gamut - including patients who are released after short stays for treatment and others who are charged with serious crimes then held through civil commitments ordered by a judge.

McLeod could not discuss Burke's case specifically, but acknowledged the hospital has seen patients who are not civilly committed yet cause repeated problems after they are stabilized and released back into the public.

Such patients fall "somewhere between the civil commitment system and the criminal justice system," MacLeod said.

"What becomes an issue are the patients who are not civilly committed, but are also very disruptive in the community," he said.

Often such patients are stable upon being released from the state hospital, but don't comply with ongoing medication or treatment. That can often lead them back into trouble or becoming a public nuisance, McLeod said.

When Salem police officers responded to the 911 call at 9:13 p.m. on Wednesday, Burke allegedly came out of the house armed with the knife and ran at the officers threatening to "cut them up," Patten said.

Several other officers arrived on the scene and repeatedly ordered Burke to drop the knife, police said. Burke refused and continued to threaten the officers, police said.

The standoff ended when Officer Jason Smith brandished a non-lethal bean bag shotgun, yelled Burke's name and racked a round into the gun, police said. Burke then got on his knees and dropped the knife, police said. Officers took Burke into custody without incident.

Police last had contact with Burke on Oct. 17 when he was involuntarily committed to the state hospital. His first 24 hours were spent at Parkland Hospital while officials waited for a bed to open up at the hospital, according to Patten. Burke is facing charges of criminal threatening, reckless conduct, criminal mischief and resisting arrest.

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James A. Kimble may be reached at