Grant funds crisis training

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Ian Gronau | September 26, 2013

  JANESVILLE— In 1988, an encounter between a Memphis police officer and a man with schizophrenia ended in a tragic shooting. The incident spurred collaboration between the Memphis Police Department, the Memphis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI, the University of Tennessee Medical School and the University of Memphis to improve police training and procedures in response to mental illness. The fruit of their labors was a program called Crisis Intervention Training, and it since has found its way to Rock County.

“Crisis Intervention Training came to Wisconsin in 2004 when a sergeant from the Appleton police department went to Akron, Ohio, and received training,” said Mary Madden, executive director of the NAMI chapter in Waukesha. “The core outcomes of CIT are to reduce the incidence of injury to officers and others, reduce repeat calls for service to mental health consumers, to enhance the working relationship between officers and mental health providers, to increase the involvement of family and friends as a crisis response alternative and to increase the awareness and availability of resources that are available to the community.” 

Initially, Rock County law enforcement agencies received training funds from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance last year to bring mental health care providers and state experts together so they could provide 31 local officers with CIT. Due to the success of that program, Rock County was chosen to receive a second grant. The Rock County Sheriff's Office, Janesville Police Department, Beloit Police Department and the Town of Beloit Police Department were awarded an additional $50,000 to train law enforcement officers in crisis intervention techniques. The grant allowed many more officers from Rock County agencies to participate in the training, which wrapped up Sept. 13.

“Crisis intervention training has been around for a number of years, but the training itself was very expensive and it wasn't offered locally so we would have had to send our officers across the state in order to get it,” Cmdr. Troy Knudson of the Rock County Sheriff's Office said. “Two years ago, the state of Wisconsin made funds available so that we could bring that training here to Rock County and provide it locally, that allowed us, since then, to send a much greater number of officers to the training at a much more reasonable price.”

A new batch of freshly trained officers returned to their agencies on Sept. 13 after participating in the five-day, 40-hour course.

But what exactly did they learn and how will it help them better manage their interactions with people who suffer from mental illness?

“We had regional and local experts providing this training for our officers, so not only do they gain knowledge about mental illness and new techniques for helping to diffuse situations involving the mentally ill, they also develop a number of contacts in our community so that when they run into a situation they are able to quickly access resources that will help them to work through problems,” Knudson said.

The training included a gamut of exercises for the officers. The session started on Sept. 9 with a few days of an overview on mental illness, said Madden, who helped implement the training. The study included information on the impact of trauma, issues relevant to dual diagnosis and understanding the difference between developmental disabilities and mental illness. In each area of study, the officers received tips from experts on how to de-escalate potential situations. In addition to all the technical information that officers covered, they were also subjected to an assessment, in which a speaker came in and spoke with the officers about the trauma that they themselves experience on a day-to-day basis.

“It's a sort of suicide assessment, slash taking care of our own part of the training,” Madden said. “The speaker talks about some of the stressors that officers face daily at their jobs. Police officers are not immune to mental health issues themselves and it's important to make sure that they are attending to their own mental health as well.”

Although the majority of the training took place Janesville, officers also spent time visiting the homes of local mental health consumers who were willing to share their experiences. Also, a variety of lecture sections from guest speakers covered topics like veterans issues, the mental illness consumer perspective, the family perspective, the legal system as it pertains to mental health issues, client rights and process and procedures relative to emergency detention.

According to both Madden and Knudson, one of the most eye-opening exercises that officers must go through is the voices simulation. The exercise uses an MP3 player and headphones to simulate an environment for the officer that mimics the experience of a person with mental illness who hears voices. 

“We run the officers through a series of tasks while they listen to an hour's worth of distressing voices,” Madden said. “They go through a mini mental health status exam, where they have to come up and answer questions while listening to these voices. We also have them do things like fill out a job application, play cards with each other and read an article and take a test on it. The exercise is just to give them some sensitivity to how difficult it is to concentrate and attend to what's going on around you when you are hearing voices.”

The exercise helps to illustrate certain points that instructors want to make clear, such as: if a person with mental illness is unfamiliar with the officer, they should speak to them in a position where they can see that they are talking to them, otherwise they may not be able to differentiate the officer's voice from the other voices they hear. It also helps officers realize that they may need to give extra time to someone with mental illness to process what the officer might be asking them. According to Madden, it is not uncommon for some participants to be unable to complete the exercise due to the high amount of anxiety and stress that it causes.

“There are always a couple in every class that don't finish the simulation,” Madden said. “It tends to be quite eye opening for officers in terms of the intensity of those voices and what they are saying and how they feel themselves responding to it. But in the end, it's always one of the highlights of the week, because it creates a really good level of empathy.”

The officers returning to their agencies will be responsible for participating in their department's team that is designed to deal with situations related to mental illness in crisis. According to Knudson, each agency has developed a team of officers who have been trained in these techniques and they have supervisors at each agency that can oversee the group so that they can later discuss the developments and use their experience to guide their actions going into the future.

“I think it's important that the public sees that this is a very significant problem and that we are working very hard to address it,” Knudson said. “I know that funds are difficult and that the economy is a bit rough at the moment, but this type of training and these types of resources are critical for those who suffer with some of these issues.”

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