- Associated Press - Saturday, April 11, 2015

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) - It starts with a knock and a calm voice.

If the door opens, police slip quietly through the doorway, two at a time. They move slowly, their demeanor nonthreatening, their hands gesturing calmly, in plain view.

“I’m Bill, with the police department,” one of the officers might say. “We’re here to see if you are all right.”

Over the past 20 years, the door between police and the mental health community has gradually swung open, allowing officers insight into the complexities of mental illness, and clinicians the opportunity to work with police.

It wasn’t always like this.

As a beat cop in the 1980s, acting Lewiston Police Chief Roger Lanier remembers that an officer’s awareness of mental illness could be summed up in a word: suicidal.

“We had virtually no training,” Lanier said. “We didn’t talk about mental illness, but we talked of people being suicidal. Now we recognize that mental illness comes in various forms.”

The calm and empathetic approach police use to look for signs of mental illness when they respond to a call on the street may seem a long time in coming as it catches on at law enforcement departments that got the memo:

Be aware. Things are not always as they seem.

Over the past decade, training courses for men and women employed in law enforcement have become more frequent and thorough. They teach recognition of mental health issues including how to approach calmly and provide the help needed by someone suffering through a mental health episode.

Instead of aggressively controlling a situation, officers are taught to slow down and assess.

At a crisis intervention training in Lewiston attended recently by deputies, dispatchers, department of corrections prison guards and first-responders from Moscow, Clarkston, Lewiston, Grangeville and Orofino, officers spent 40 hours listening to lectures, learning about mental illness through first-hand accounts and practicing intervention.

Over and over.

The training culminated in a one-day final exercise in which newly aware officers stepped into chaos. Mental health clinicians acted out roles that forced officers to tap their resources to deal with a variety of situations they may encounter on duty.

The scenarios were based on real-life events from the clinicians’ portfolios. Peers certified in crisis intervention evaluated officers’ responses to each situation.

They often began with a knock on a door, with screams emanating behind it, or absolute silence.

The door may have opened, or remained closed as officers called out, keeping an easy tone.

“A friend told us you might need some help today. Can we come in?”

The calmer approach is meant to save lives, Lewiston police Sgt. Jeff Klone said.

Although the FBI does not track how often police use deadly force in the line of duty, sessions such as the recent crisis intervention training are often a direct result of shootings that authorities deem may have been prevented, Klone said.

“There are incidents all over the country in which deadly force has been used when someone was having a mental health crisis,” Klone said. “In this day and age, we expect police officers to have training and to change their tactics.”

He calls it “softening.”

Officers who walk into a high-octane crisis must quickly determine if the cause is mental-health related. Police officers do not give up safety in their efforts to diffuse, but their body language and voice goes into slow-motion, as the mind remains hyper-alert. Officers soften their tone, Klone said. They listen and attempt to build rapport.

“They are listening for key words,” he said. “They try to determine what the person is seeing, or feeling.”

Schizophrenia, hallucination or bipolar episodes may block out a sense of reality, danger or even an officer’s orders.

If training such as the weeklong instruction in Lewiston seems imperative, it also often lacks funding.

Joyce Lyons, clinical supervisor at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s behavioral health department in Lewiston, said her agency teamed with the police department to provide the training, and to find innovative ways to pay for it.

That kind of collaboration is often paramount when dollars are in short supply.

“One of the first things I did when I came to this department was meet with the police department,” Lyons said. “We grew on that, we’ve built on that relationship.”

Because funding is scarce, money had to be raised through donations for the weeklong session. Volunteers were lined up to provide meals, and a church was used as a facility for the final day of exercises.

“The funding is not available to put it on, to pay for speakers, food, a place,” Lyons said. “I don’t have a budget to provide those kinds of things.”

So, Lyons and clinician Sheri Owen collaborated with Klone and groups such as the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, and improvised.

“The community recognizes this as a need,” Owen said. “We just haven’t gotten political backing to fund it statewide.”

Organizers use a crisis intervention protocol based on a model developed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crisis intervention unit.

Because the training requires 40 hours - or a week - to complete, it can tap the resources in small towns that may only have two officers in their department.

Larger departments such as the Lewiston force have made the training a priority.

“We try to make sure all of our officers get that,” Lanier said.

It is a piece of the whole puzzle when breaking in new recruits.

“We’re trying to get ahead of this, and not have something bad happen that we could have prevented,” Klone said.


Information from: Lewiston Tribune, https://www.lmtribune.com

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