Police undergo training for mental health crises

May 9, 2018 | By Lillian Schrock

Corvallis police officer Josh Zessin on Friday sat next to a woman who was forlorn over a breakup. He asked her what happened.

“I’d be upset, too,” Zessin told the woman.

After talking more about the woman’s separation with her boyfriend, Zessin asked her if she had tried to harm herself. She told him “yes,” and revealed her wrists. He asked if he could take her to the hospital to see a doctor, and she consented.

The woman Zessin was talking to was an employee at Trillium Family Services who was acting during a scenario-based training exercise for police officers. More than a dozen law enforcement officers from Benton County agencies last week underwent training on how to better respond to mental health crisis situations.

Liz Scott, a crisis services supervisor for Benton County Mental Health who facilitated the role-playing scenario, told Zessin he had succeeded in building rapport with the woman using reflective listening techniques. Those techniques are some of the de-escalation skills officers learned during the week-long school, which is known as Crisis Intervention Team training.

The training program was created in Memphis in 1988 following the fatal shooting by a police officer of a man with a history of mental illness and substance abuse. The goal of the training is to increase safety during crisis situations and divert people with mental illnesses from the criminal justice system to mental health treatment.

Corvallis Police Lt. Cord Wood, with the help of Benton County Mental Health workers, developed a localized version of the training and started putting law enforcement officers through it in August. Since then, 45 Benton County sheriff deputies, Corvallis police officers, Oregon State Police troopers, Oregon State University Public Safety officers and Philomath police officers have undergone the training.

Wood said he plans to have all Corvallis police officers complete the training. Another school is planned for this fall.

“For CPD, we go to about three mental health related calls for service every day,” he said. “Over a year, that’s 900-plus calls.”

Participants first received information on various mental health illnesses and how they manifest. Wood said the officers are not expected to become diagnosticians but to have familiarity with those illnesses and some techniques to respond.

For example, if an officer approaches someone who is delusional, the officer must realize the person’s delusion is real to that person, Wood said. The officer should acknowledge the person’s experience and try to build rapport, he said.

The officers learned other de-escalation techniques, such as taking time to work through a situation rather than rushing, Wood said.

Matt Seney, a Corvallis officer who went through the training, said it was valuable because it offered best practices for responding to specific situations.

Benton County Mental Health workers also led the officers through case studies to help them understand what happens after police take people who are a danger to themselves or others to the hospital. Wood said those case studies helped officers understand what information hospital staff members need from officers who respond to crisis situations.

The police also heard from people who have experienced mental health crises. One woman shared her experience of having police respond after she committed a crime in the midst of her first psychiatric break, Wood said. She said police officers who responded approached her calmly and professionally and informed her of what steps they were going to take and what they needed her to do.

“She found that approach very helpful to her because she was in a crisis and she needed someone to try to bring some stability to the moment and she found that they did that,” Wood said.

Also during the training, police discussed special populations that may experience crises, including military veterans and elderly people with dementia. Those sessions were facilitated by local people who work with those populations, Wood said.

He said the training is designed to be taught by local people and to address local issues. That not only provides police officers with the knowledge of mental health issues but also connects them with the resource providers they’ll be working with in the community.

“I like to think that we’re giving them tools to put in their toolbox so that when they’re encountering something on the street, they have more information about what they’re encountering and how to address it,” Wood said. “And I think that the interaction with those providers in the community benefits us because if we can get folks involved into the health care community and out of the criminal justice system, that’s a win. They’re getting the help they need and we’re not using the resources to respond to that.”