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Officers to be trained in dealing with mentally ill

Denise Hackel, left, president of the St. Croix Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and Linda Flanders, coordinator of the Pierce County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (PCCJCC), showed a manual Thursday about Crisis Intervention Training for dealing with mentally ill people. (River Falls Journal photo by Bill Kirk)

Often first at the scene of a crisis, police officers don’t always have the skills necessary to deal with mentally ill people.

That’s the premise behind a series of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) sessions being prepared for law enforcement personnel in Pierce County. The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (PCCJCC), in cooperation with the St. Croix Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC), is organizing the sessions, which may begin as early as next year.

“Mental illness is a brain disease, so it’s a medical disease,” Linda Flanders, PCCJCC coordinator, said Thursday, though indicating it’s not widely regarded as such.

“It’s just that it manifests itself in different behaviors,” added Denise Hackel, president of NAMI’s St. Croix Valley chapter, acknowledging the stigma suppressing discussion of the condition.

While those with mental illness might not have a noticeably different appearance (identified as an issue for police), if officers recognize their condition the outcome of a crisis situation in which they’re involved could be turned from negative to positive, according to the pair of organizers. For its part, Flanders said a goal of the PCCJCC is to have these situations de-escalated on-scene and hopefully be able to reduce the involvement of the criminal justice system thereafter.

“It’s so important to set it right from the start,” she said. The use of reason or applying power doesn’t work with the mentally ill, Hackel reminded.

The PCCJCC has seriously examined the matter of law enforcement’s interactions with mentally ill people for the past year or so, Flanders said. Initially, a full training package for officers was advocated, but limited resources meant it likely couldn’t be made available to all. Instead, a condensed version will be presented, possible through the use of devices including video, and all officers in the county will indeed get some training.

“We wanted it to be mandatory,” she said, explaining PCCJCC members realized mental illness isn’t necessarily high on an officer’s priority list, what with terrorism exercises, gun range practice and the like on their agendas. Many don’t even know about NAMI, Hackel understood.

Another concern raised by officers headed for the sessions is the lack of time they have to address the matter, she said. Organizers are sensitive to this reality, she said, yet when an overall perspective is applied, the time officers devote now could offset other time spent later, such as perhaps decreasing long-distance transports for emergency detentions.

The information will be fit into four-hour classes, she said, found acceptable to police supervisors who must secure replacements or otherwise make arrangements to cover officers’ shifts while they’re attending. Seven classes will be scheduled every other month over 14 months, at varied times to accommodate those daytime or nighttime shifts, and held somewhere in River Falls, the exact location yet to be lined up by CVTC.

Organizers are aiming for a class size of around a dozen and no more than 14 in each session, the coordinator said. They’re working with a total of 80 officers to be trained, reflecting the sheriff’s department and the various community police departments. Each officer will receive four CEU credits upon completion.

The content will address the “big three” types of mental illness: Schizophrenia (involving hallucinations, voices and dementia), bipolar (manic at-risk) and depression (suicidal), she said. These are accompanied by certain characteristics, with which it’s important for those trying to deal with the mentally ill, such as police, to be aware.

For example, a mentally ill person may be able to keep up with visual cues at a crisis scene, but need to be talked to more slowly than others.

“Their minds aren’t necessarily going in real time,” she said about being under violent circumstances, such as a vehicle crash or battle and its aftermath, which military veterans have experienced. “They’re probably scared and confused,” Hackel agreed.

Flanders cited statistics showing one in four adults in this country have some kind of mental illness in a year and only one in three are treated for it. A needs assessment conducted by the PCCJCC in preparation for this project identified dual diagnoses, suggesting a significant number of the mentally ill cover their conditions through substance abuse, she said.

The coordinator said she’s already taken full training herself in Bayfield County to be an instructor for CIT and will participate in an advanced version in the Twin Cities in the coming month. She showed a manual last week containing material from which the curriculum here will be drawn, based on the “Memphis Model,” a national model originating in Memphis, Tenn.

Using this resource and others, she’s putting together a “Modified CIT Training” for the local law enforcement classes. As presently envisioned, it will include: A 10-minute introductory video about mental illness and de-escalation techniques, a 30-to-40-minute overview of mental illness by Peter Van DuSartz of Hudson, 20 minutes devoted to the personal story of a consumer plus questions-and-answers, a 45-minute presentation and explanation of de-escalation techniques from the St. Croix CIT, 15 minutes for another story from a family member or consumer plus questions-and-answers, an eight-minute video reviewing the aforementioned techniques, 15 minutes for a description of role play and simulation exercises, followed by these exercises for two hours.

The role-playing aspect, described as “emotionally draining,” will require the use of actors, Flanders said. Three are expected to be hired. Experienced actors who are interested can call her at 715-222-0920.

She estimated a $4,000 budget for the CIT project; the PCCJCC approved proceeding with it in August. A grant application to United Way is planned and any donations to NAMI specifying this effort would be appreciated. There’s no cost to the officers to attend, but organizers want to continue offering the class after this round of sessions into the future, when they intend to charge.

A pocket-sized resource card displaying much of the class contents and related information is to be developed for law enforcement personnel to carry with them after they complete their training, she said.

Pierce County Circuit Judge Joseph Boles and Sheriff Nancy Hove are PCCJCC co-chairs, Flanders said. She’s optimistic about remaining coordinator, believing a grant which has been submitted including funding for the position will be successful.