- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - As a 40-hour class about mental illness wraps up, dispatchers to patrol officers reflect on how the lessons learned instruct and mirror their experiences.

Some talk about how their training in handling people with dementia - an intensive hands-on course where officers have their senses distorted to simulate dementia’s symptoms - informs their ability to understand their inability to handle common tasks.

Others speak about how the training reinforced the difficulties they have in handling family members with mental illness.

Led by the county’s Mental Health Agency’s Crisis Response Team, the training is part of a week-long class to help officers understand the intricacies of mental illness and how to better deescalate situations.

Crisis Response Team Director Jen Corbin said the course focuses on hands-on education.

“We’re not teaching. We’re kind of facilitating,” Corbin said. “The 40-hour course is not about us standing up and lecturing.”

Students simulate mental illness by wearing headphones that obscure their hearing and experience the foot pain associated with poor circulation and neuropathy by placing painful items in their shoes.

In addition, the class tackles subjects that can also affect officers’ mental health. A recent class heard testimony from a first responder to 9/11 and the effect the tragedy had on his life moving forward.

Corbin tells the graduating class - a combination of Anne Arundel and Annapolis law enforcement officials - that the class can serve two purposes.

One is “not having a negative attitude pre-dispatch” when handling calls involving those with mental illnesses. The other is “we’ve got to switch our culture.”

Three years ago, Anne Arundel police faced considerable criticism after an officer tased a mentally ill man in Edgewater.

At the time, many in the community wondered how police could tase William Lawson Jr., so well-known in the community he’d garnered the nickname of the “mayor of Edgewater.” He’d run after an officer ordered him to stop, but his caretaker said that they hadn’t listened to Lawson.

Anne Arundel Police Chief Timothy Altomare admits there is need to change elements of traditional police culture. The incident happened prior to Altomare’s arrival as chief, but he said that the training is meant to supplement more standard officer training.

“How hard is it to show up at (the) crisis moment? Because when the psychotic breakdown happens, you can’t be proactive and you can’t be officer-friendly,” Altomare said. “When there (are) life safety things that need to be taken care of, the more traditional officer role has to come out because we have to protect life.”

“The magic here is maybe we get better as stopping that final boil over from happening,” he added.

Alfred Thomas, an 18-year veteran of the Annapolis Police Department, said the training should be mandatory for all officers.

He recalled a situation with a minor he had while he was still relatively new to the force. Thomas said that the child was “acting out,” so he handled it like a normal call for a disturbance and thought nothing of the possibility that he could’ve handled it differently.

“I later found out he was suffering from ADHD,” he said, speaking of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He said he missed an opportunity to provide the child with the proper resources for care, something that was outlined in the class.

The class also features role play where officers act out situations they might encounter in the field alongside testimonials of police who themselves fight with depression.

“You have to be able to look at yourself and know what your own pieces are about you that might affect the way you interact with someone else,” instructor Steve Plumber said.

A training specialist with the Crisis Response Team, Plumber stressed a key goal was to bring officers into a place of empathy.

“One in four adults have a mental illness and there are six people effected by every suicide,” Plumber said. “So it’s crazy to think that everybody in this room was not effected in some way by mental health or suicide or anything that we’re talking about.”

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Information from: The Capital, https://www.capitalgazette.com/


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