Under the leadership of Chief Michael Sauschuck, the Portland Police Department created a Behavioral Health Response Program that, among other innovations employs a full-time clinical social worker as a behavioral health coordinator and retains master’s-level interns from the University of Southern Maine’s clinical counseling program.
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Rob Zink, an officer from the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota, started the Cop Autism Response Education Project to train his fellow officers how to interact with autistic people, inspired by his experience of having two sons on the spectrum. Officer Zink pointed out that sirens and flashing lights alone can be catastrophic sensory overload for people with autism, while a calm voice and a reassuring demeanor can go a long way toward de-escalating a tense confrontation.
“There has been a greater appreciation for the need for officers to be well versed in how to deal with people in crisis,” said Frank Straub, Director of Strategic Studies for the Police Foundation.
Executive Director of the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center Rob Johnson explained that what is intended for the region may end up being a pilot project for the entire state. The initiative would provide an assessment tool they can use when individuals come into and through the system.
The Council of State Governments says most states have some form of de-escalation training, but the programs may differ depending on department size and funding.
Police across the country are working on ways to de-escalate potential confrontations with the public, focusing their resources on dealing with those with mental illnesses.
Supporters of the new training requirements say officers need to be equipped to deal with people whose actions can be ascribed to illness, not ill intent.
“The main goal is to keep people with mental illness out of jail if they do not have to go to jail,” said Brent Hurley with the Mississippi Department of Mental Health Crisis Response Division.
In 2010, the Council of State Governments recognized the program as one of six in police departments across the country that other police agencies can visit to learn how to improve their response toward individuals with behavioral health disorders.
The officers being trained in de-escalation are encouraged to communicate and empathize with suspects, take stock of the factors contributing to a confrontation, and consider ways to disengage before the situation spirals out of control, leading to the use of force.