- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

LEESBURG, Va. (AP) - Nearly three years after the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office established a Crisis Intervention Team aimed at promoting positive and safe encounters between law enforcement officers and people experiencing a mental health crisis, the program has trained scores of deputies who police Loudoun’s neighborhoods.

Now, with community residents and deputies hailing the benefits of the training, the team is focusing on another area: the county’s adult detention center, where about 20 percent of the inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

On Jan. 16, 20 deputies assigned to the adult detention center graduated from the program, which has also been provided to all emergency call dispatchers in the county, the sheriff’s office said.

Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said it was evident that the detention center staff would benefit from the specialized training. The actual number of inmates who struggle with mental health issues is likely to be higher than the documented percentage, Chapman said, “so there’s a fair sense that any deputy at the ADC is going to encounter a situation involving mental illness.”

The 40-hour training program, which follows an instruction model developed at the University of Memphis, includes classroom instruction, role-play exercises and visits to Loudoun Mental Psychiatric Services, a homeless shelter, and Loudoun’s Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services, authorities said.

The most recent course was led by deputies certified in crisis intervention training, representatives from Loudoun’s mental health services, the Alexandria Police Department and other experts. They introduced trainees to the medical, social, psychological and legal implications of mental illness. Certain elements of the program were adapted to fit scenarios that deputies at the adult detention center might encounter, said Beth Flaherty, mental health coordinator for the crisis intervention training program.

“We go over psychological mental illnesses. We discuss active listening skills, verbal de-escalation techniques, knowledge of community resources,” Flaherty said. The training also includes intervention techniques for officers responding to someone who might be suicidal, she said.

Beyond classroom lessons, Flaherty said, deputies are given an opportunity to experience what some people with mental illnesses go through, by taking part in an exercise that involves simulated auditory hallucinations.

Linda Cerniglia, law enforcement coordinator for the crisis intervention program, said that the exercise often makes a powerful impression on the trainees, showing them how difficult it might be for someone experiencing a mental health crisis to process a law enforcement officer’s instructions.

The deputies “actually put on iPods, and they’re instructed to fill out an application, to count out money, to go to the doctor and go through an evaluation, all while listening to voices in their head,” she said. “It really is a very eye-opening experience for the deputies.”

Cerniglia said that deputies have offered overwhelmingly positive feedback for the three days of role-play exercises.

“At first, students are very reluctant to do it - police don’t usually like to act in front of their peers,” she said. “But in the end, they love the role plays because it’s putting everything they’ve learned together.”

As the program has expanded and evolved in Loudoun, new elements have been added to the curriculum, Cerniglia said, including lessons from the Wounded Warrior Program on how to cope with a veteran who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. The training also has a lesson focused on working with people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

With 30 percent of deputies in the field now trained, Chapman said, the sheriff’s office has noticed that in several cases, relatives of someone with a mental illness will often request that particular deputy respond to an emergency.

The positive result for deputies in the field is clear, Chapman said, adding that it remains to be seen how the training will benefit the adult detention center.

“We’re interested in getting as much feedback as we can, to see what works, what doesn’t and how we might need to make it better,” he said.

The most recent training was the first of four classes that will be taught this year, with the goal of training the majority of the adult detention center deputies, the sheriff’s office said.

When the program started two years ago, the goal was to train 25 percent of sheriff’s deputies in crisis intervention techniques. Now, Chapman said, the goal is to train every deputy in the department.

It’s a long but important process, he said.

“You have to backfill positions; you have to pay overtime to cover some of the positions while people are in training,” he said. “But we’re working hard to do it.”


Information from: The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com

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