Program Trains Law Enforcement Officials on How to Help Mentally Ill

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Provided by Prince William County

Prince William Police Officer Matthew McKee graduated from Crisis Intervention Team Training, or CIT, on a Friday and put into practice what he learned the very next Saturday.Prince William Crisis Intervention Training

The multi-jurisdictional training program, which Prince William County adopted in 2012, is aimed at teaching communication skills and tactics that law enforcement officers might use to diffuse situations involving people in a mental health or intellectual-disability crisis.

Law enforcement officers and dispatchers from the Prince William County Police Department, the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office, the Prince William-Manassas Adult Detention Center and the Manassas and Manassas Park police departments participate in the program, which is based on a national model that began in Memphis, Tenn., in 1988.

McKee’s chance to use his training came when he answered a call regarding a situation that threatened to turn violent. When he arrived, he found a woman exhibiting signs of paranoia who told police that she thought her husband was trying to poison her. Because of his training, McKee recognized the signs of mental illness, so he simply talked to the woman. “I utilized some of the skills that they taught us, and I was eventually able to calm the woman down to a point where she allowed the rescue units to transport her to a hospital. It was getting to a point where it would have gotten physical between her and her husband if we had not intervened.”

The training, McKee said, led directly to success in that situation. “Honestly, it’s just about patience and talking to someone.”

Andrea Shea, a Prince William County Emergency Services Therapist with the County’s Community Services agency, said the training teaches the communication skills through techniques such as role playing, active listening, using non-verbal communication, asking open-ended questions and empathizing. The techniques can be used to diffuse a situation that might easily deteriorate. “We’re looking for a way they can deescalate that person using questions specifically related to mental health.”

Gathering information is also a key component to the training. In talking to people, law enforcement officers might be able to determine what kind of care a person might need.

Barclay Duegaw, a Master Jail Officer at the Prince William-Manassas Adult Detention Center, said he regularly uses the training he got in the intensive 40-hour program. One situation that Duegaw said often comes to mind involved a 20-year-old man who had been arrested for public intoxication and wound up at the jail. In talking to the man, Duegaw learned that he suffered from depression and was suicidal. It turned out that the man was off his medication.

Part of the training includes tours of local facilities that treat people with mental illness. Duegaw said knowing about those facilities helped him when he was talking and listening to the 20-year-old. Duegaw was able to calm the man because of his visits to the hospitals. “I told him that I’d been there, and it’s set up kind of like a dorm. I told him it’s not a bad place. It put him at ease a little bit.”

The man consented to the hospital stay, and Duegaw said he hasn’t seen him return to jail. “I look him up periodically, and I haven’t seen him come back. It seems like he’s doing all right.”

Maj. Amanda Lambert, the director of support services at the detention center, said the training has paid off at the jail. In her 30 years of experience, Lambert said, the CIT training has worked better than any other program she’s seen. “We know, based on research that this model does work in diverting inmates from jail into treatment.”

Prince William Police Officer Rhonda Fields, an 11-year law enforcement veteran, attended the first class held in Prince William County and said she’s often had the opportunity to use her training. The most recent situation she encountered was with a 15-year-old boy, armed with two knives, who had locked himself in his room after a family dispute. Fields said she was able to talk her way in; and when she entered the room, she found the boy pointing a large kitchen knife at her and holding a small paring knife against his throat.

After talking to the boy for about 10 minutes, he relinquished the knives. “It went from going from two knives, one facing him and one facing us, to him coming with us in a cooperative manner.”

Fields also said that listening was key and giving people the opportunity to talk helps. “To let them know that you’re actually listening to what they’re saying makes a big, big difference. Just talking to them and letting them vent and letting them tell what is really going on is all that it takes.”

Shea said the training also destigmatizes mental illness. “We’re really trying to train the officers to understand that mental illness is not something that people ask for. We’re trying to help the officers understand that these are people that need a little help and assistance sometimes.”

That part of the training stuck with McKee. “If somebody is fighting cancer and they’re going through that battle, you think of that person as a warrior, as a strong person. But if someone is fighting mental health issues, we might think of it as something that’s annoying, but they didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘Hey I want to hear voices in my head.’ I don’t know a single person who would want that.”

Shea recently received an email from a mother who had been helped by people who had received the training. The email stated:

“When I phoned the police and described the situation I asked them to send a CIT trained team. And they did. The team came quickly, quietly – no sirens or lights flashing – and calmed me and my family. What pleased me the most was the way the CIT spokesman spoke with me and with my family, with tremendous respect for our dignity and intelligence. He was obviously very, very knowledgeable about mental illness, and knew how to respond. Although I wasn’t present in his conversation with my loved one, I got a glimpse of their demeanor, as I said, as apparently respectful, sincere, and astute.”

So far 104 law enforcement officials, county-wide, have completed the program. Of those trained, 84 are Prince William County law enforcement officials.

Funding for the program comes from the Virginia CIT Program and donated staff time.

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