- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) - Greeley police officer Ryan Oettinger drove his patrol car around, waiting for calls on a slow day after a crazy night, when he noticed a woman sitting on the sidewalk.

“That’s a little strange,” Oettinger said. “Let’s go see how she’s doing.”

The sidewalk faced a busy street. There was no bench, no bus stop or any place inviting pedestrians to sit for a bit. It felt off to Oettinger. As a police officer trained to recognize situations that could lead to trouble, Oettinger decided to trust his instincts.

He turned the car around and pulled up to the woman.

He rolled down the window and asked how she was. She seemed unsure of the question at first. She’d done nothing wrong.

She said she was OK, but then she took it back. She’d just watched her son walk to the liquor store. He’d been drinking heavily for a little while now and acted strangely when he was drunk. He was of age, but she was worried.

Oettinger asked if she wanted him to speak with her son.

“It might sound different coming from me rather than his mom,” Oettinger said. She agreed.

Oettinger gave the woman a lift back to her place and walked with her into her home. There, he saw her son sitting on the couch.

A pin with the letters ‘CIT’ rests under Oettinger’s name tag, reported The Tribune (http://bit.ly/2daLn9D). It’s not as big or flashy as the police badge, but Oettinger wears it proudly. It stands for Crisis Intervention Team - it’s a subtle way to let people know he can offer extra help.

The training teaches officers to address mental health concerns before a dangerous - even deadly - situation arises.

Police hope getting to unstable people early and connecting them to the right resources will help the community avoid tragedies such as police shootings, suicides and violence. It’s part of a ramped up effort to collaborate with mental health agencies in Greeley to address a growing number of people who need mental health treatment in northern Colorado but are unable or unwilling to find it. Greeley police say they’re seeing more and more instances where they’re called to resolve situations involving mental health issues.

Oettinger asked the son how he was and what he’d been up to. Oettinger asked if he’d been drinking. He said no, but his answer was jumbled and his words were slurred.

“It’s not illegal to drink, but your mom is worried about you,” Oettinger said.

Then he listened. Oettinger found out the man’s roommate recently died, and he’d just lost his job. It was a rough time, just the kind of thing that can affect even those who previously didn’t have any kind of a mental condition.

Oettinger took out his business card and wrote down the number for Labor Ready, a temporary staffing agency, and North Range Behavioral Health. Oettinger told the man both those agencies would help him.

Oettinger also gave the man his work cell phone number to call in case he needed someone to talk to.

Oettinger knows some of the top risk factors for suicide are relationship losses and job losses. He knows because he lost his own mom to suicide when he was 19 years old. When he has to, he uses that to relate with people.

“Sometimes when I’m being empathetic, people think I have to be because it’s my job,” Oettinger said. “When I pull that out, they realize I’m actually connected to this.”

Oettinger said he often deals with folks who are depressed during his patrols. He knows they don’t want to feel that way.

“We’re obviously not psychiatrists, but we have to play that role a lot,” Oettinger said.

SUICIDE BY COP

Mental health calls have gone up in the past few years in Greeley, police chief Jerry Garner said. Especially suicide calls.

“I can’t tell you why, I don’t know why,” Garner said. “We’re answering attempted suicide or threatened suicide calls literally every day, sometimes more than once a day.”

Garner is also worried because he’s seen more instances where people want to use officers to help them commit suicide. They call it “suicide by cop,” and generally it happens when unstable people force police officers to shoot them. Often, they pull a weapon or pretend like they have one.

Earlier in September, a woman waived a pistol around in the courtyard of an apartment complex on the 1100 block of 7th Street. She yelled that she was going to kill everyone. When officers arrived, she refused to listen to their orders.

She told them they’d have to kill her and went to grab the pistol - which turned out to be a replica Smith and Wesson .40-caliber BB gun - out of her waistband.

They warned her to drop the weapon. When she didn’t listen, they Tased her. It could have been worse.

The idea is to prevent situations from getting to that point.

There’s no one problem to pinpoint in these situations, Garner said. Sometimes it’s a mental health issue, sometimes it’s a drug issue and sometimes it’s a combination.

Regardless, officers don’t want to kill people, and no one wants to lose a family member. Shootings also keep a community unsettled, even angry, making it more difficult for officers to do their jobs in the future.

“We know a number of the mentally ill people we deal with are not dangerous,” Garner said. “The problem is we don’t know initially which ones are, so we have to exercise extreme caution.”

CRISIS INTERVENTION TEAM TRAINING

Oettinger remembers speaking to a 24-year-old woman after she lost her husband to suicide. She was devastated by the loss and became depressed herself. The woman’s father tried to help her by telling her how good she had it. Her father meant well, but he made it worse.

That’s when Oettinger got a call about the 24-year-old, who was suicidal. He talked with her about his mother.

“We ended up going to the hospital,” Oettinger said. “She followed up about the suicide support group that I go to. She wanted to join.”

Part of knowing how to maneuver through crisis situations is common sense, Oettinger said, but another part is training.

Crisis Intervention Team training consists of an intensive 40-hour course that teaches officers how to deal with calls related to mental health issues, said Jerry Garner, police chief. It’s more intensive than the standard eight-hour course at the Police Academy.

Part of the training deals with common manifestations of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar and addiction.

In addition to the classroom, officers train with professional actors, Garner said.

“If you’re handling it appropriately the actor deescalates,” Garner said. “If you’re making it worse, the actor gets worse.”

Actors respond to officers’ demeanor and tone. If officers are too aggressive or hasty, actors are trained to become increasingly hostile and resistant. To pass, officers have to pacify four out of five situations.

Officers say it’s some of the toughest training they’ve ever been to because it’s so real, Garner said. The actors are tough, and they challenge officers to think about how they can influence the situation for better or worse.

Officers are supposed to come out of the training with an understanding of major mental health issues, pacifying techniques and communication skills. Officers are trained to go into mental health crisis situations in as nonthreatening of a way as possible. They are trained to speak softer than the person they’re contacting and to use nonthreatening body language.

“As a patrol officer, you certainly solve more problems with your mouth than your handcuffs or belt,” said Greeley Police Department training officer Steven Perkins. “Veteran officers are very good at talking to people because that is your best tool.”

Perkins said de-escalation is critical because it gives officers time. That time can be the difference between a deadly encounter and a peaceful one.

“I can think of several instances just this year where we’ve dealt with people who are armed or have come at police wanting them to shoot them,” Perkins said. “These techniques have allowed officers to come at them with other options.”

The goal now is to get at least one officer with the extra crises training at every call where officers are dealing with someone who’s mentally unstable, Garner said.

PARTNERSHIPS

If people aren’t getting the mental health care they need, jail is usually the unfortunate alternative.

After all, if someone is belligerent, threatening or violent, people typically call the police, Perkins said. Not all mentally ill people are this way, of course, but when police are called, that’s often the case.

North Range now has offices in the jail to help people struggling with a mental illness break the cycle of going to jail, being released and then going to jail again instead of getting help. Before North Range was involved, deputies conducted evaluations to see if people needed a mental health hold. Since deputies don’t have the same kind of training a psychiatrist would, it was difficult for them to distinguish between a mental health crisis and other problems, Detention Division Capt. Roger Ainsworth said.

Ainsworth serves on North Range’s board of directors. He’s working to ensure those who wind up in jail with mental health issues get the care they need once they’re released.

“I don’t want to be releasing people back onto the street who might hurt themselves or others or commit another crime,” Ainsworth said.

North Range and the Greeley Police Department hope to expand their partnership beyond the jail and into the streets. North Range already has a mobile crisis team that, if time allows, goes out with police on mental health calls, said Kimberly Collins, administrative director at North Range. It’s still a new program, so it’s not yet common practice, but North Range and Greeley police hope to make it that way.

“We typically get a call, and police explain what their concern is with a person,” said Gail White, program director of the crisis response team. “We go out and talk to the person and find out what resources they need.”

The mobile unit has four vans with security cages. More violent calls might need tougher security cages, so the vans vary. They usually send out one or two clinicians, White said, depending on the needs of the call.

Having a plainclothes person present helps soothe the situation, Collins said.

“A lot of times, individuals have trauma with police officers because they’ve had bad experiences in the past,” Collins said. “If they’re wearing the uniform and carrying the gun and badge, it can trigger them.”

Long term, White hopes to have a clinician embedded with first responders, she said, so officers won’t even need to call when they’re facing a tough situation.

PREVENTION

Everyone agrees that seeking help before the police get involved is ideal.

“If you have the kind of relationship with the troubled individual where you can give them advice, where you can talk with them, do so,” Garner said.

North Range Behavioral Health offers a number of services for people struggling with their mental health, including counseling for all ages, substance abuse treatment, a walk-in crisis center and a mobile crisis team.

Clear View Behavioral Health, 4770 Larimer Parkway in Johnstown, also offers inpatient and outpatient care for adolescents, adults and seniors.

But if someone needs medical attention or is a danger to themselves or others, calling the police is the best thing to do, Garner said.

Usually there are warning signs before a crisis. Oettinger looks for those signs. He’s developed some deeper relationships with the repeat callers he sees. One kid in particular sticks out to him. He doesn’t have a stable family. He’s been in physical fights with his neighbors. Oettinger recognizes his address when he gets the call.

Even though Oettinger has worked on his case, and there have been consequences for his actions, the kid tells Oettinger he knows he’s there for him. It’s possible he’ll think of Oettinger next time trouble arises - the extra thought could prevent the next tragedy.

___

Information from: The Tribune of Greeley, Co, http://greeleytribune.com

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