Police training on complaints involving mental health patients
Tom Bender, Somerset County director of crisis intervention (Vicki Rock / March 15, 2013)
Saylor of Frederick, Md., was in a movie theater. When the movie ended, he wanted to see it again and refused to leave. Theater employees called three off-duty sheriff's deputies who were working a security job. When Saylor began hitting and kicking them, the deputies restrained him. At some point he ended up on the floor and died of asphyxia. His death was ruled a homicide. The case has ignited the fears of parents of children with Down syndrome, autism and mental illness.
Police officers in Somerset and Cambria counties are eligible for special training in dealing with people who may have a mental illness or developmental disability. The Laurel Highlands Crisis Intervention Team uses the Memphis Model of response. Team members went to Memphis for training — so they know how to train others.
In 1988 the Memphis Police Department joined the Memphis Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee in organizing, training and implementing a specialized unit after a mentally ill person was shot and killed.
"The first police officers in Pennsylvania trained in the Memphis Model were trained here in the Laurel Highlands in 2007," Somerset County crisis intervention director Tom Bender said. "Police departments from all over the state now send officers here for training."
When a person with a mental illness or development disability encounters a problem in public, it can be confusing. The person often feels defensive.
"It may be that a consumer is causing an issue in a business because he needs a drink of water or to use the restroom and is having trouble locating what he needs," he said. "The consumer may then act out, which causes a disturbance."
Bender said it is important for people to listen, observe and understand what the person in distress needs. Confrontation is the wrong approach. Bender said to be reassuring.
If Bender or another crisis worker at Bedford-Somerset Mental Health and Mental Retardation agency is available, the police may ask for their assistance.
"The CIT officers are known by the (mental health) consumers by a pin they wear and the consumers will sometimes themselves ask that a CIT officer be called," Bender said. "The relationship has improved so much between consumers and police."
Somerset Police Chief Randy Cox agrees with Bender.
"We have approximately half of our officers certified in crisis intervention," he said. "It is really good — the best I can realistically hope for."
Cox believes the use of CIT officers translates into reducing arrests. That is a good thing because jail is not the best place for someone with a mental health or developmental disability. It also translates into fewer injuries to officers and to the public, which reduces the department's litigation.
Bender felt it was necessary to see situations from police officers' viewpoints, so he performed a ride-along with the Johnstown City police several years ago on the first warm spring night of that year. He had no idea the pressure that officers are under to respond to a call, deal with it and move on to the next call.
"I didn't realize how much police, when they have uniforms on, are targets," he said. "They are my heroes as a mental health and crisis worker."
The CIT training is held annually in April at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, Johnstown. It is a weeklong program for police, district judges, probation officers and others in the court system. Cambria County departments require their hostage negotiators to first go through CIT training.
The most important part of the course, according to Bender, is training in de-escalation — what to say or not say. People who have already taken the course act out scenarios for the class to respond. Problems start out simple but become more complex and difficult. One of the biggest things to learn is to take the time to listen while under pressure.
Family members and consumers also talk to the officers during the course. Families of those with disabilities must be as vigilant as they need to be for their own safety and that of the family member with the disability, Bender said.
"Statistics have shown when officers are trained in crisis intervention they are less likely to be injured themselves or to cause injury to consumers," he said. "There has been a cultural change over the 24 years I've worked here — police are doing more active listening and are less likely to get the club out and hit people. No police officer wants to shoot anybody, but they are willing to shoot to protect themselves and the public."