Police Train to De-escalate When Engaging People with Mental Health Issues

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Local officials say Cleveland police are making progress in responding to crisis calls involving people with mental health issues.

A report released recently by the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board – the organization overseeing mental health services in Cuyahoga County -- points to 8 hours of crisis training completed by fourteen hundred officers as the one of the reasons for the improvement.

Beyond Cleveland, police departments in other Northeast Ohio communities are also training officers in CIT, or Crisis Intervention Team Training.

Officers from several western suburban Cleveland departments including, Lakewood, Rocky River Westlake, Fairview Park, North Olmsted and Metropark rangers recently attended a specialized 40-hour CIT training program.

On the final day of training the officers participated in life-like scenarios – learning the best ways to de-escalate when engaging with people with mental health issues.

In one role play, two officers had to respond to a call in the training room and confront how they would handle a woman who wanted to jump off a bridge. The entire scene played in the front of the training room while the other 25 officers in attendance looked on.

 “I want to die,” the woman screamed from the makeshift bridge which was actually a long conference room table. 

The role play was very stressful and life-like for Westlake Police Dispatcher Daniel Udrija who said he just wanted to make sure the woman didn’t jump.

“I wanted to make sure that I didn't lie to her and I didn't want to set off any triggers,” he said.

Udrija, said the training helped him understand he had been stereotyping people who suffer from mental illness. Before he thought they were violent and wanted to be left alone. Now he realizes that not true.

“Most of the time they're just having a really bad day because they not have they've not taken their medicine or maybe they've not even seen anybody yet to realize that there's something going on,” he said.

Helping police change their way of talking, thinking, and interacting with the mentally ill is the goal of this training. Organized by the ADAMHS Board, it is led by law enforcement or mental health professionals.

One of the key points stressed is officers have to be patient, and resolving these type of interactions will likely take a long time.

“No doubt about it slowing things down as a huge piece of what CIT officers do,” said Captain James Purcell, CIT coordinator for the Cleveland Division of Police.

Officers need to change their approach when dealing with a person having a mental health crisis, said Purcell, who is also one of the facilitators for this training.

“Generally (for) officers it's a command and control approach and enforcement approach which is appropriate for law enforcement not quite as appropriate for dealing with these situations where people are suffering from mental illness are in a crisis because it's only going to ramp their anxiety level up or their fear level up,” he said.

After the training the officers who attended will become part of the specialized crisis intervention teams in their departments

This training is based on the Memphis model which was developed in 1988 after a high profile case there involving police killing a person with mental illness. 

The Akron police department was the first in this area to train a dedicated group of C.I.T. officers. Cleveland’s police department is currently revamping its training as part of a mandate by the U.S. Justice Department to makes changes due to problems with use of excessive force.

In 2014, the death of Tanisha Anderson, a woman with mental illness who died in police custody, reinforced the need for additional police training.

Despite high profile cases like Anderson’s, police officials say the encounters that end tragically are small in number but they shape public opinion.

“The public does hear about the bad encounters and that's their perception is their reality.,” said Lieutenant Roger Warner CIT coordinator for the Lakewood police department.

“Many more times than not things don't go badly. They don't see the thousands of times that we interact with people over the course of the day year or month whatever. They don't see those successes.,” Warner said.

Lakewood has 19 officers on its Crisis Intervention Team - enough to have at least two CIT officers on each shift, he said.

Ron Bunner is one of those officers. When he responds to crisis calls the first thing he needs to know from dispatch is what he is walking into -- are there any weapons involved, is the person suicidal, does the family know he is coming or did a neighbor call?

 “I’ll come in and you can generally tell the family that’s nervous. The first thing I tell them is I’m a CIT officer. I’m trained to deal with situations just like this. My goal is to get them to talk to me and if they need to go to the hospital we’re going to go to the hospital,” Bunner said.

In reality though, sometimes being patient and building a rapport with the person in crisis doesn’t always work to de-escalate a mental health crisis, he said.

 “It doesn't always work. I mean there's going to be some people you can spend 24 hours with and try to get them to open up and they're not willing to do so or they're not capable,” Bunner said.

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