Bee Investigator

Mental health training for cops can decrease use of force

Psychologist Dr. Phil Trompetter speaks to officers about the different ways to communicate during a crisis training class focused on dealing with mental health situations at the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department on Friday.
Psychologist Dr. Phil Trompetter speaks to officers about the different ways to communicate during a crisis training class focused on dealing with mental health situations at the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department on Friday. jwestberg@modbee.com

Most law enforcement agencies have people specially trained to communicate with those who are mentally ill or in crisis.

Crisis negotiators usually are part of SWAT teams that take some time to assemble and respond to a scene. But three-quarters of officer-involved shootings of people intent on committing suicide by cop happen within the first 30 minutes of their encounter with law enforcement.

That’s why it’s important to teach first-responders crisis intervention techniques, according to psychologist Phil Trompetter, one of the instructors during a 40-hour course at the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department last week.

“This stuff works not just with the mentally ill; it works with kids; it works with boyfriends and girlfriends,” Trompetter said. “A lot of the resistance (law enforcement) runs into is resistance they created by their own bearing.”

California law requires that officers and deputies receive ongoing training to keep fresh skills such as driving, shooting, first aid, and arrest and control techniques.

While many of the people with whom law enforcement comes into contact suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, ongoing training to identify certain disorders and appropriately respond to them is not a requirement.

In fact, recruits in the academy get only about 12 hours of instruction in the area of mental illness and physical and developmental disabilities.

This is one of the reasons local law enforcement leaders say they send their officers and deputies to the Crisis Intervention Training offered by Stanislaus Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

“We believe that it is a critically important class that provides a very useful tool in dealing with anyone in crisis or with mental illness,” said Sheriff Adam Christianson.

He said he’d like every patrol and custodial deputy to eventually take the course, which has been offered in Stanislaus County since 2005.

At this year’s course were patrol and custodial deputies, police officers from Turlock and Newman, Atascadero State Hospital police, as well as Stanislaus County probation officers and paramedics.

They learned about the different behaviors that result from disorders such as schizophrenia and autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

They visited board and care homes and mental health facilities, where they talked to clients and their families about their experiences with law enforcement.

They were taught common characteristics of people at risk for committing suicide by cop.

And they learned techniques of talking to people with mental illness and potentially avoiding a use-of-force incident.

“The uniform implies power,” Trompetter told the class. “When you don’t use that power, it makes your words all that more effective.”

He gave them advice including:

▪ Establish a large perimeter around the person, keeping bystanders and other distractions out of the person’s sight.

▪ Collect information about the person and how he responds to different situations, drugs or alcohol, and what sets him off.

▪ Avoid aggressive tactics that will result in confrontation.

▪ Speak slowly and calmly to the person, asking open-ended questions and gaining a rapport and trust.

“You do that not by barking orders at them but by listening,” Trompetter said. “The more time people have, the more often they come down from this high pitch of emotionality.”

On the last day of class, participants did role-playing with actors from the Prospect Theater Project.

The scenarios included a delusional man, scribbling in a notebook and refusing to get out of a taxi, and a highly agitated man with bipolar disorder who was fighting with his father.

The situations are very similar to those law enforcement experiences daily, such as the man deputies encountered last week in Stanislaus County who was burning his graduation gifts and admitted having thoughts of jumping in front of a car.

Christianson said his deputies last year detained 769 people for psychiatric holds. That doesn’t include the hundreds of other mentally ill people with whom they come in contact who don’t meet the requirements for an involuntary hold.

Custodial deputy Kim Lackey, who participated in the scenario with the delusional man in the cab, said she could employ a lot of those same techniques with inmates who refuse to leave their cells.

“A lot of the stuff we’ve dealt with, we have learned over the years, but this put everything into perspective,” she said.

Roy Hoback, who also role-played with the delusional man, said he learned techniques that can help bring that person back to reality.

“There was a calming technique I learned,” he said. “Asking them questions like what do you see, what do you hear, what do you feel. … It uses the right side of their brain and they have to focus on what is going on.”

While taking a softer approach with the mentally ill, Trompetter reminded the class participants to never forget their own safety.

Forty-eight percent of people who intended to commit suicide by cop and had a firearm fired at officers, Trompetter said, citing a 2009 study in the Journal of Forensic Science.

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