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How law enforcement agencies are training officers to deal with people in crisis
11242019 TRAINING
Wallet cards handed out by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Hall County provide advice for communicating with someone in crisis who has a psychiatric illness. - photo by Nick Watson

It is an almost guaranteed certainty for a law officer: Encountering a person having a mental crisis.

“Whether it be substance abuse, mental health or the combination. … It’s commonplace enough that there’s not a deputy on patrol that’s been on patrol any length of time that hasn’t gone on these calls,” said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.

The results of those encounters can vary, but they often end with a person in jail, which has become a “de facto mental health facility” as a result, Wilbanks said.

“Incarceration is not always the answer,” he said.

Wilbanks said law enforcement agencies have had to face a reckoning with authoritarian approaches to situations that require a better type of crisis intervention, which requires officers to learn a new set of skills that often rely on a calm demeanor instead of a show of force.

“If you’re having a crisis, the last thing you want is for sirens to be blaring and for everyone in the whole neighborhood to know something is happening. You want it to be as calm as possible. You don’t want to create more havoc,” said Sherry Franklin, who is the vice president for Hall County’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

When conducting training, Franklin passes out cards and asks officers to put them in their wallets. In bright colors and no bigger than a credit card, the cards hold vital information on how to respond to incidents involving people suffering from mental illness.

For example, on a yellow card labeled “Communicating with Someone in Crisis Who Has a Psychiatric Illness,” the first few tips are to slow down, give them space, be calm and speak slowly and softly.

The training available varies from an 8-hour training session to a more intensive weeklong course.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office serves as a host agency for crisis intervention team training, meaning it provides event space and registration support.

Wilbanks said there are a few dozen deputies who have already gone through the training.

“We would like to, of course, put all of our staff through it, but given the logistics of this — we’re a host agency and guaranteed a minimum number of seats — it may take some time. Our priority is on first responders and those deputies who are most likely to come into contact with individuals in crisis,” which would include patrol, special operations and warrants divisions, Wilbanks said.

Upon becoming Gainesville police chief, Jay Parrish said mental health awareness and training would be one of his main goals.

“The Gainesville Police Department is committed to finding alternative solutions to addressing the needs of those suffering mental illness and those in moments of crisis. We are striving to get 100% of our officers (crisis intervention team) trained and 100% of our total staff trained in mental health awareness,” Parrish wrote in a statement. “We are working with numerous non-profits, public and private agencies to address collaborative community efforts to create an effective, holistic plan for crisis management and addressing the mentally ill. We feel strongly that we will make substantial steps toward meeting these goals and rolling out new programs in 2020,” Parrish wrote.

Cpl. Jessica Van said a little more than a third of Gainesville Police officers have gone through the training, which is run through the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in collaboration with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and the National Alliance on Mental Health.

Though the 40-hour course has received high marks from the officers who have gone through it, Wilbanks said it can create a “strain on manpower” and minimum staffing to have an officer in training for a week.

The alternative has been the eight-hour mental health first aid course. Region 2 training coordinator Darin Rice said the shorter course can give officers some of the mental health awareness training to be able to respond in the field and get people in crisis to the resources they need.

“(With) the eight-hour courses, we’re probably going to be more successful in cycling through all of our first responders and getting those guys through that. The 40-hour course is great and we want them to do that, but with staffing issues what they are, we’re seeing better success in terms of enrollment with the eight-hour (course),” Wilbanks said.

Rice said the 40-hour course provides an in-depth look at individual mental illnesses and disorders and the signs and symptoms to look for. The main diagnoses discussed include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders and mood disorders.

Rice said the course is “a great tool to have to supplement the training that they already have.”

“It can take their communication skills and their human-interaction skills to the next level, especially when we go into the de-escalation part of the 40-hour week training,” Rice said.

The course begins with a day-and-a-half learning about different mental health diagnoses before site visits to local emergency receiving facilities and state psychiatric hospitals.

Rice said the visits allow the officers to be “totally immersed with interactions with mental illness and different diagnoses.”

The rest of the course focuses on de-escalation through role-playing scenarios.

When an officer encounters a situation requiring this training, Rice said the officer should not rush their questions and allow the person time to process.

“As far as a call itself, try to keep everything there at the scene — as best as they can — calm,” he said.

That may include turning off the lights and sirens once at the scene to take away different stimuli.

“You’re removing that clutter from the concentration between the officers and the people they are dealing with,” he said.

The next mental health first aid eight-hour course will be Dec. 17 or Dec. 19 and will be hosted by Hall County.