Mental health training for law enforcement is key to handling crises

Mental health training for law enforcement is key to handling crises
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As people paid their respects to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Billy Evans, his death and the death of his assailant, Noah Green, were a stark reminder of the dangers law enforcement officers face every day, and the complexities associated with individuals suffering a mental health crisis.

As a law enforcement professional for more than 40 years who watched his sister-in-law suffer for decades with severe schizophrenia, and later schizoaffective disorder — and having personally dealt with many such situations in the field — I am familiar with the actions and dangers that people suffering mental health crises can pose to themselves and others. Unfortunately, much of the public does not understand these dangers. Some view law enforcement officers as “escalators” to people suffering mental health crises and believe that only mental health professionals are equipped to de-escalate potentially dangerous or deadly situations. 

As we observed on April 2, when Green’s car rammed a Capitol barricade, these situations can become complex and have fatal consequences. While there is no single or simple solution to handling most mental health crises, empathy and de-escalation, when appropriate, are usually the best approaches. However, dangerous situations often require the immediate use of force to protect and save lives.

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When I took office in 2012, I committed to training 25 percent of our field deputies to Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) — programs that predated several mass shootings and a national effort to address mental health. I hoped to have at least one CIT-trained deputy on every shift. My wife’s work as a former National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) facilitator, her “hands-on” familiarity with those dealing with mental health issues, and as the caretaker for her sister, served as a catalyst to this effort.

The 40-hour CIT program enabled deputies to view a mental health crisis from the perspective of the person suffering the crisis. It included mental health awareness; discussed triggers to potentially violent situations; provided “hearing distressing voices simulations” to experience what a person suffering a crisis may be confronting; and provided legal expertise and other relevant concerns. The program since has been expanded to enable first responders to identify people suffering mental disabilities such as autism, Asperger syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Since 2012, what started as a goal to train 25 percent of our deputies has morphed into nearly 100 percent of our field, Adult Detention Center and court deputies trained to date — well over 500 individuals. As CIT training evolved, our physical response to resistance dropped dramatically. In 2013, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office deployed Tasers 43 times to take people into custody. In subsequent years, as more deputies became trained, that number decreased to 17, then to 11, then to seven, and now averages four or fewer every year. That is a testament to our deputies’ abilities to communicate and de-escalate — but it also demonstrates that even the best training and communication techniques will not work 100 percent of the time, periodically requiring the use of force.

Besides expanding the CIT program, the Sheriff’s Office joined with Loudoun County Mental Health to establish a Crisis Intervention Threat Assessment Center. Staffed by mental health and law enforcement professionals daily, and late into the evening hours, the center is used as a referral by law enforcement officers or family members for less serious cases. It affords individuals the opportunity to have themselves evaluated.

Despite these efforts, mental health situations continue to consume an extraordinary amount of our work hours — requiring the Sheriff’s Office to further advance our mental health and CIT agenda. This summer, we will begin a pilot program that assigns one full-time deputy per shift to exclusively respond to and follow up on mental health, potential suicide and overdose situations.   Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office has engaged with the Ryan Bartel Foundation to better train deputies to identify potential teenage suicide indicators and direct resources, such a peer-to-peer counseling, for early intervention.

It remains clear that mental health situations can be extremely dangerous or deadly, and that no easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions exist. However, having mental health professionals address these situations without the benefit of properly trained law enforcement officers is not the answer — it can place unarmed civilians into life-threatening situations. The key here is for law enforcement and mental health professionals to work together to address these critical situations with care and compassion, and to carefully apply appropriate force only when necessary.

Mike Chapman is the elected sheriff of Loudoun County, Va., the state’s largest full-service sheriff’s office. He previously served 23 years as a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration and seven years as an officer/detective with the Howard County, Md., Police Department. Follow on Twitter @LoudounSheriff.