Nevada Police Focuses on Mentally Ill; Training Covers Ways of Helping Homeless People

Susan Voyles, Reno Gazette-Journal (Nevada)

For the first time, Reno, Washoe and Sparks police officers are being trained to deal with homeless people exhibiting unstable behavior.

Instead of dragging a homeless person to jail or calling an ambulance, police officers are learning how to identify signs of mental illness and ask a series of questions that allow them to connect them to more appropriate services.

Police say hundreds could be directed to the right assistance to help get them off the streets.

Those who commit major crimes, of course, will still go to jail. And those who are a danger to themselves or others would still be sent to a hospital emergency.

Twenty police officers and two paramedics graduated from the weeklong crisis intervention team (CIT) course on Friday. Reno Deputy Chief Ondre Berry said there is a plan to offer a second class.

"This is the perfect example of problem solving and community policing," Berry said.

Berry said his goal is to train at least six officers for each of three shifts so one intervention officer is on duty at all times. In the initial class, 10 Reno officers, five from Sparks and five Washoe deputies participated.

At Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie´s urging, downtown Reno police officers Patrick O'Bryan and Steve Johns took the class in August with the Las Vegas metro police department. Then they organized a similar class with local experts at the Regional Public Safety Training Center, with help from the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, the state hospital on Galletti Way.

Reno police officer Bernard LaMere, paramedic Ben McDermott and Washoe regional jail deputy Robb Cummings — all CIT graduates — said they deal with mentally ill street people with substance abuse problems every day.

They said the training this week was an eye-opener in learning how to communicate better with the mentally ill as well as with the mental health and medical world and service providers.

In the 40-hour course, they had breakfast with mentally ill people at ReStart, observed District Court Judge Peter Breen's packed mental health/substance abuse court session on Wednesday and toured Lakes Crossing, among other places.

They talked face to face with doctors, patients and their families. And they came away with a resource booklet with lists of symptoms, medications, questions to ask and phone numbers for help.

At Lakes Crossing for the criminally insane, LaMere said he sat next to a woman he had arrested several times. But this was the first time he had seen her under control and was able to talk with her.

"She said she was scared of me," he said. Then he learned his police radio and flashing lights set her off when he'd see her on the streets. "Now I would use an ear piece," he said, to listen to the radio when he approaches a person he suspects might have a mental illness.

O'Bryan and Johns told about their first experience in practicing what they learned. They spotted a man running wildly through traffic in downtown Reno in an area known for drugs.

They stopped the man and O'Bryan searched him for weapons. Then man tensed up as if he were going to put up a fight.

Johns asked the man whether there was a chance he was supposed to be seen by a doctor. "That was the cue to for me to back up."

Then they asked him whether he was supposed to be on meds and whether he was hearing voices. He answered yes both times and agreed to go with them to the veterans hospital.

When they brought him in, O'Bryan said they discovered his social worker had been looking for him for three years.

Leslie is working to gain consensus for state hospital, local hospitals, local officials and others to back a plan for a triage center for the mentally ill substance abusers as part of the homeless project.

But O'Bryan and Johns won't be satisfied with that. "They have not given us our truck," he said, his arms firmly crossed.

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