Mich. LEOs undergo new training to address mental health crises

The crisis training emphasizes empathy, active listening, in an area where mentally-ill individuals lack resources


Brooke Kansier
The Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Jennilyn Oster wanted to do more for the students walking her district’s halls.

Oster — school resource officer for Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District — interacts day-to-day with dozens of kids living with autism, mood disorders and other conditions. She sees their daily struggles, and out in the community, Oster’s fellow Traverse City police officers see those symptoms at their worst.

She wondered if there was a better way.

“The old way of looking at law enforcement, where you basically respond to a scene, you cuff people, you take them to jail — it’s not the most effective when you’re dealing with people with mental health issues,” said Oster, who now coordinates the department’s Crisis Intervention Team training.

The mental health crisis-geared approach, which the department adopted in early 2019, is also used by Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department’s jail staff, community police officers and, as of this month, road patrol deputies.

Both programs come through some level of collaboration with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, which brought a session of the Texas-based 40-hour training program to northern Michigan through a grant.

“Instead of focusing on, ‘OK, this person is trespassing and they’re constantly trespassing and so finally we go and take them to jail,’ look at ‘OK, do they have a mental health issue, is this causing them to trespass?’” she said. “Are there other options than taking them to jail?”

The training educates officers on different mental disorders and approaching situations with de-escalation and understanding, said Administrative Sgt. Brian Newcomb, one of the jail’s four fully CIT-trained staffers. He and his peers traveled to Texas for that training last September and now lead other trainings for the rest of the department.

“That’s somebody’s somebody,” Newcomb said. “If we can get them treatment and they don’t have to be in the criminal justice system, it’s a win-win. It’s better for them, it’s better for us, it’s better for the community.”

The approach meets a growing need, added Sheriff’s Department Capt. Chris Clark.

One in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness or disorder — like anxiety, PTSD, ADHD and autism — according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows one in 25 people live with severe mental illness, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

Less than half of that population receives any treatment, according to NIMH.

Alongside that, suicide rates have jumped 33 percent from 1999 to 2017, according to the CDC, and it is now the second-leading cause of death for Americans 10-34 years old.

“You’re seeing law enforcement being called upon … more than they ever have been,” Clark said. “With less and less mental health resources available to people, their natural reaction is to call 911.”

That lack of resources hits hard in Grand Traverse County, Newcomb added.

“We have no options,” he said. “If somebody truly is in crisis, it’s Munson (Medical Center) or it’s the jail.

“We are the de-facto mental hospitals now.”

The full 40-hour training comes from Texas — a state where CIT training for officers is mandatory and programs have seen major success. It’s based off the Tennessee-developed “Memphis Model,” created in the 1980s after an incident where a mentally-ill man was killed by police.

Oster and one other detective who attended that 40-hour training now lead training for the rest of the department. She says the approach incorporates shorter segments into recurring in-service training sessions that focus on a specific mental illness or disorder officers might encounter, like autism or PTSD.

“When they get to a scene they’ll know, ‘OK, we’re not dealing with somebody who’s on drugs, we’re not dealing with somebody who is likely drunk — we’re dealing with somebody who has a disability,’” Oster said.

TCPD plans to send another pair of officers for that extended training in the future. It costs the city about $2,000 per officer, Oster said, between the training itself and travel.

Oster’s also working with CMH and other organizations to create a system in which people can flag their addresses with dispatch, so officers can respond accordingly to calls of a mental health crisis.

It fills a training gap.

“We really don’t receive a lot of training on how to better service those people — it’s not part of our academies,” Oster said. “For instance, we may not generally know how to work with someone who has autism.”

Sheriff’s Department road patrol deputies are being trained in shifts via eight-hour sessions led on Wednesdays by jail staff and Stacey Kaminski, CMH operations manager of crisis services. Those are funded through the department’s training budget, and mandated by Sheriff Tom Bensley, Newcomb said.

“We speak to them about mood disorders, psychosis, personality disorders, co-occurring substance use, autism, excited delirium,” Kaminski said. “It’s more being empathetic, being an active listener and understanding where that person is coming from.”

It has been a major success so far.

They’ve since presented the program at a regional conference and garnered requests from departments looking to implement the same, Newcomb said. He and Mark Draeger, a corrections deputy and jail CIT officer, hope to send more corrections officers down for the full training and eventually add mental health professionals to the department’s roster as part of a designated crisis intervention team. Another hope is creating some form of diversion center — a potential third option between the jail and Munson.

“If we have no answers for them or don’t understand why they’re acting the way they are, we can’t help them,” Draeger said. “And that’s our main goal for somebody who ends up in the system that shouldn’t be in the system — we should be able to get them the help they need so they don’t come back.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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