New mental health approach for police: Offering solutions

Officers receiving more training for mental health emergencies

  • Police officers such as Jodie Wise in Lisle are being called upon more often to respond to mental health crises -- often enough that many departments are seeking additional training to teach them the best ways to help.

      Police officers such as Jodie Wise in Lisle are being called upon more often to respond to mental health crises -- often enough that many departments are seeking additional training to teach them the best ways to help. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Police in Lisle are among those shifting their approach to mental health calls to focus more on providing resources to help residents get their conditions under control.

      Police in Lisle are among those shifting their approach to mental health calls to focus more on providing resources to help residents get their conditions under control. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Branches of the National Alliance for Mental Illness offer Mental Health First Aid training classes for police officers, such as this one at the College of DuPage. The classes teach signs and symptoms of mental illnesses as well as how to direct those in need to support.

      Branches of the National Alliance for Mental Illness offer Mental Health First Aid training classes for police officers, such as this one at the College of DuPage. The classes teach signs and symptoms of mental illnesses as well as how to direct those in need to support. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/11/2015 8:35 AM

First of two parts.

Two police officers pull onto a bridge carrying one busy suburban road over another, where a young woman's feet dangle over the edge. They can tell she's in distress, a danger to herself. They call in reinforcements.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The next three officers who respond know what they're doing in situations like this, a mental health emergency.

Trained as a Crisis Intervention Team, these officers get the woman talking. That's important.

"If she's talking, she's not doing what we don't want her to do," said Lisle police Sgt. Dennis Canik, one of three crisis negotiators who kept up conversations for more than two hours until officers could get the woman away from the edge and take her to a mental health hospital. "It kind of makes her feel like, 'OK, maybe these guys care about what's going on.'"

The woman is just one example of the mental health-related issues police encounter throughout the suburbs:

Elderly people with dementia wandering the sidewalks or waiting for a train, confused and lost. A man with schizophrenia whose actions scared his neighbors. A mentally unstable teenager whose parents no longer could handle his behavior. One department says its officers responded more than 100 times to the home of a man who wasn't taking his medication and believed -- incorrectly -- that his neighbors were constantly burning things.

When something goes wrong in these cases and others, police are the first to respond. And they do it all without clinical training as psychologists.

But increasingly, officers in the suburbs aren't going in cold to calls that require mental health expertise.

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As police respond to what they say is a higher number of such calls, they are seeking additional officer training that builds empathy and understanding of people who suffer from conditions of the mind.

"The likelihood you're going to come across someone having a mental health crisis is increasing," said Scott Naydenoff, Cary deputy police chief. "If you know you're going to face it, you need to train on it. You need to have your people aware of how they can handle these situations safely."

Officers certified in the national gold standard for mental health response -- Crisis Intervention Team training -- learn how to speak and listen during mental crises and how to connect people in need with resources.

In Lisle, a community of less than 23,000 people, police have responded 200 times in the past two years to a small number of people known to struggle with mental illness.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Their new strategy is to focus on improving communication and helping solve residents' problems -- a far cry from the typical method of dealing with the immediate issue at hand, "closing the call," and moving on, Deputy Chief Ron Wilke said.

"Rather than just treating it as a police call, we are now truly treating it as a call that we can offer some solution," he said. "Normally, that solution is to connect them to someone who can give them assistance."

It's a momentous mindset shift in policing, and it's taking place across the suburbs as departments realize they've been called to a new duty.

No longer are cops only protectors of peace, hunting down bad guys and arresting dangerous criminals. Now, it's almost as if they're asked to act as social workers, too, asked to make referrals that can improve quality of life.

Some say police are getting more such calls because of state funding cuts to mental health services, though others are less sure. Regardless, police often receive the first distress call.

"Many times, if people don't know who to call, they call police. We are the first person to make contact and try to get them resources," Lake Zurich Chief Steve Husak said.

"It's not a crime issue," he said about the rise in mental health calls, which at his department increased from five documented responses in 2013 to 27 in 2014, "but a community caretaking issue."

Training to care

In Lisle, day shift patrol Officer Jodie Wise has a theory on the increase in mental health calls. Caregivers are beginning to call police when they don't understand what's going on or when their loved one won't take prescribed medication. Those calls aren't reporting a crime or a domestic violence episode; something just isn't right.

Wise can see that when she gets to the scene.

But she has a bit of a trained eye. A psychology and criminal justice double-major, Wise wanted to be a psychiatrist specializing in post-traumatic stress debriefings before she fell in love with the job of a beat cop.

Heather Diab, a certified recovery support specialist with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in McHenry County, blames a "broken system" that leads the same people to call 911 for help time and time again. "They don't have the resources."

Educating officers about resources such as mental health services, behavioral health hospitals, food pantries, homeless shelters, churches and addictions counselors is part of the solution.

And that's where training comes in. NAMI branches in McHenry and DuPage counties and elsewhere offer an eight-hour Mental Health First Aid training session for police that gives background on mental illness signs and symptoms and makes officers aware of service providers that can help.

Eighteen officers from Cary recently completed the training.

"It gives law enforcement a little of the clinical side of what's going on with the person so we can take that into consideration with our tactics," Deputy Chief Naydenoff said. "It helps us not make it worse."

In Naperville, all officers are on track to complete the training by the end of the year.

But many departments are clamoring for the Crisis Intervention Team program, which was developed in 1988 in Memphis, but has been exploding in popularity during the past decade, said Michael Woody, president of CIT International.

"A lot of agencies are coming to the realization that officers need to learn more de-escalation skills, especially with those with a mental illness," Woody said. "The course is all about building empathy in the officers for people with a mental illness. Once they feel empathy, then they're more receptive to the de-escalation skills they learn later."

The course builds empathy through human interaction. Woody said trained police leaders who facilitate the courses have their students meet people with mental illnesses "when they're having a good day because police officers usually don't see them when they're having a good day, only when they're in crisis."

Seeing a person with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression when he or she is stable can help decrease the stigma that those with mental illnesses are "crazy," Diab and other experts say.

"One of the biggest problems is the police view everyone as a criminal whether you have a mental illness or not," Diab said. "That's the issue and that's the stigma that we're trying to get rid of."

Patients, not suspects

Officers say they no longer want to see -- or treat -- people with mental disorders as scofflaws.

"What we're trying to avoid is just arresting people with mental health issues that may not have committed a crime or just transporting them (to a mental health facility) and then they're released," said Steve Huffman, police deputy chief of administration in St. Charles. "We're trying to break that cycle."

The justice system is telling officers that arrests are no longer the way to go, and they're taking the hint.

"The courts have really started drawing a definitive line, telling law enforcement that you cannot treat mental health patients like criminal suspects," Naydenoff said. "You need to treat them like patients."

That shift in perspective leads to a vastly different set of questions officers should ask while on scene, said Bartlett Sgt. Jessica Crowley, who coordinates CIT training courses in northern Illinois.

The questions aren't seeking to find fault or blame, but to understand and help. Crowley suggests officers ask such questions as: How did this start? What medications are you on? Are you under the care of a physician? What type of treatment has worked for you? What hasn't worked? How much sleep do you get? Have you been sleeping at consistent times? What family support do you have?

Those questions -- and the answers -- can be helpful in directing people to the appropriate support, Crowley said.

Building a team

For police departments trying to be part of the mental health solution, support is what it's all about.

Sgt. Canik in Lisle, who so far is the department's only CIT-trained officer, said the "T" in the program's name doesn't simply indicate a team of officers. It also stands for a community team of paramedics, clinicians, clergy and charities that police should create to support those in need.

Those teams could begin forming soon in Lisle, where the department plans to send Officer Wise and three other officers to CIT training so they can learn to help people like the woman on the bridge.

The team approach already has taken hold in Arlington Heights. There, Sgt. Shawn Gyorke said the department pairs CIT-trained officers with a mental health clinician from Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates to actually seek out residents with mental problems and refer them to treatment. From July 2014 through March, the teams reached 142 people.

"We went out to try to touch base with some of the people who are homeless or suffering from specific mental health issues to try to get them placement in a program," Gyorke said. "It's an effort to aid them."

Despite all these efforts, officers still won't hit the streets with years of psychological training, nor will they become experts at diagnosing complex mental conditions.

But with a new approach and an emphasis on training, experts such as CIT International's Woody say officers at least will be able to step back from the heat of the moment and ensure safety for all involved.

"CIT has always been about slowing things down, getting the person to calm down, letting them vent and bringing it to a safe conclusion. That seems to be what a lot of law enforcement agencies are moving toward now," he said. "It's just a much better way to go."

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