Crisis training helping Utah police save lives

Ben Winslow Deseret Morning News
Copyright 2006 The Deseret News Publishing Co. 

FARR WEST, Weber County -- Ron raised the machete to his throat.

"I said my goodbyes!" he shouted at the police officers standing a cautious distance back. "I don't want to live!"

As he swung the machete around, pacing in a field behind a warehouse, officers tried to talk to him, quickly piecing together his story (at least the story that was posed in this staged training enactment). After using cocaine for days, Ron was depressed over learning that he had been diagnosed as HIV positive. His partner, Cory, was equally agitated. The officers put him in handcuffs to get him out of the way.

"I want to face death on my terms!" Ron shouted to the officers.

"You think death's the only way?" Uintah County sheriff's Corrections Cpl. Richard Gowen asked him.

As the minutes ticked by, four officers tried to talk to him. Finally, Ron decided he wanted to die and take Cory with him. As he charged up a row of police cars, Roy police officer Armando Perez came up from behind and tackled him.

"Dude! Good tackle!" Salt Lake City police detective Ron Bruno said as he picked himself up off the parking lot. Standing nearby evaluating the officers were mental health counselors with Weber Health Services.

"You guys did great on the verbal de-escalation," Weber Human Services' Cory Peterson said. He played Bruno's partner in the scenario.

Officers from all over Utah gathered here at a police training center to learn how to deal with people suffering from mental illness, substance abuse and other problems that can color interactions with the law. It's part of a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) academy that has just been launched in Weber County.

"A lot of officers just don't have experience dealing with individuals who have mental illness and who are in a crisis," Weber County sheriff's detective Mark Lowther said Friday.

After a week of classes on substance abuse, mental disorders, medications and legal issues, officers put their newly learned skills to the test. Using live training scenarios, officers learned how to interact and to de-escalate an already volatile situation. Mental health professionals and police instructors played the parts of people in crisis.

At the next scenario, officers had to deal with a mentally retarded man who had barricaded himself inside the janitor's closet at a school. His 23-year-old sister, Ginger, was not helping matters at all. In fact, she was aggravating the situation.

"You're stupid! I hate you, Brent!" the officer playing Ginger shouted at her brother through the door. The officers tried a number of things. They tried to persuade Ginger to talk to him more calmly, promise him tickets to Lagoon, ice cream cones.

"The cops are liars," Ginger said when she was brought to the door.

Finally, the observers called the situation a draw. The officers failed to get Brent to come out.

Evaluating them, Ogden police detective Jeff Pickrell told the officers not to make promises on which they can't deliver.

"When you lie to someone, you may get them out -- that time," he said, reminding them that many calls are repeat calls. "When you go back, you have that much credibility."

Licensed clinical social worker Ginger Jones told them it is important to offer help to stressed-out family members.

"I wanted someone to empathize with me," she said of her role as the aggravating sister, who was the sole caregiver of her mentally retarded brother.

Increasingly, police officers on the streets are finding themselves acting as social workers in addition to being law officers. CIT trainers hope by educating the officers about mental health and substance abuse issues, they will relate better to people instead of going in as "the law."

"They need to learn how to deal with human behaviors," Weber Health Services licensed clinical social worker Shauna Riley said Friday. "So that they don't just come in with a very authoritarian attitude. A person who's mentally ill is going to be really defensive."

As the scenario trainings wore on, the officers increasingly came under scrutiny for acting a little too much like social workers and forgetting to be cops. Responding to a neighbor's complaint about a "crazy lady and her three crazy children," the officers had to deal with a woman in a wheelchair on amphetamines, her antisocial 17-year-old son, a hypersexual 16-year-old daughter and another teenage girl high on glue.

While trying to isolate the cast of chaotic characters, the officers got praise for validating the neighbors' concerns. They were criticized for not setting boundaries, standing too close to people and, in some cases, forgetting back-up.

"That is not a good thing," Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy Kim Bowman told them.

Lowther called it a "balancing act" that police officers must do every day when dealing with people facing mental and substance abuse issues.

"It's easy to be trying so passionately to get somebody to de-escalate and resolve the situation that ... you start exposing yourself to dangers," he said. "It's always a balancing act to remind them that they're still police officers, first and foremost."

Officers participating in the scenario training said their CIT training will be invaluable in dealing with the public at large. In addition to knowing what they could be dealing with in a volatile situation, they will also know whether someone should be hospitalized, put in detox or sent to jail.

"It's a different role," Cache County sheriff's deputy Mike Bohm said. "Out there we probably would have shot the guy (in the first scenario.)"

Officer Perez said he plans to use a lot of his lessons on the street.

"Words," he said, "are always better than using force." E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com 
May 29, 2006

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