Training to aid mentally ill a priority for police

Portland Press-Herald

By David Hench

When Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck was a young community policing officer, he and his partner were called to the Casco Bay Lines parking garage for a person behaving and driving erratically.

They found the man, a driver of a Cadillac in the upper levels of the parking garage, but could barely communicate with him.

“This individual truly believed in his mind we were agents of the devil and we were there to kill him,” Sauschuck said. The officers ended up in the cab of the car, fighting to keep the man from putting it in gear and running them over.

The experience helped convince Sauschuck that he should enroll in the department’s first Crisis Intervention Team class in 2001.

“When something like that happens, you play those conversations in your mind: ‘Did I do absolutely everything possible to help this individual?’” Sauschuck said. “I knew personally and professionally I needed more information.”

Now, 12 years later, every officer in the state’s largest municipal police force, the first to embrace crisis intervention training, has completed a 40-hour course in identifying and responding to the array of people with mental illnesses that officers encounter.

The achievement comes as the number of police calls related to a person’s mental health has been climbing for years, in part because residential facilities for people with mental illness have closed.

Portland identified 4,013 calls for service in 2012 that related to a person’s mental health, up from 3,311 the year before. Numbers for 2013 have not yet been compiled.

The stakes on such calls can be high.

Some are mundane – people talking to themselves or acting strangely, who are deemed to be no danger to themselves or others despite their abnormal behavior and who cooperate with police. Others are more perilous, both for officers and the person in crisis.

A 2012 report by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that 42 percent of the 57 people shot by Maine police officers since 2000 were mentally ill, and they represented 58 percent of the 33 people killed in officer-involved shootings.

The report found that most officers lack the specialized training in recognizing and de-escalating confrontations stemming from mental illness.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of Portland’s public safety and health and human services committee, said having every officer trained to deal with people in mental health crisis is an important achievement that will pay off.

“It’s notable it’s been a long time since we had a fatal shooting where a police officer shot someone who was having a serious mental illness situation,” Suslovic said. “That shows how important the CIT training is and really how the entire department gets it when it comes to the challenge.”

But the training does not prevent deadly confrontations.

South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins said he is also committed to the program. All but two of the officers in his 53-person department have been certified in CIT. He notes that both of the city’s fatal police shootings in 2006 and 2008 involved people with a mental health crisis. In both cases, CIT-trained officers were on hand but did not have an opportunity to mitigate the threatening behavior that led to the use of deadly force.

Googins says the training is an essential tool for modern police work.

“This really is developing career-long survival skills, because mental health calls, we’ve had a number of them go very badly over the years,” he said.

Portland is the largest, but not the only, police department in Maine to provide CIT training to all of its officers. In addition to South Portland police, Sanford police and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office also have trained all or nearly all of their officers.

Like many medium-sized departments, Portland and South Portland originally intended to have one officer on each shift trained in crisis intervention.

But mental health calls can take time and often overlap, so it was determined that it was not effective to have just one or two people on a shift trained, Googins said.

Laura Usher, CIT program manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness headquarters in Virginia, said some agencies around the country believe that rather than train every officer in crisis intervention, it’s better to train people who are suited to that approach who can be called upon by officers who are not.

Sauschuck, however, believes every officer could potentially encounter a person in crisis, and waiting for a specialist can be imprudent or impossible.

“My argument from the beginning was we don’t train specific officers in OUI enforcement or defensive tactics,” he said. Sauschuck said dealing with people in mental health crisis has become part of the job of an officer. “When we talk about verbal judo or we talk about crisis intervention team training, these are officer safety or community safety classes.”

At the heart of it is getting people the help they need while ensuring public safety, said Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the NAMI Maine, the state affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“There are ways to make those situations more complicated or heated, and other ways to handle it where you can help calm somebody down and get at the root of what’s going on and address that, instead of just the behavior that’s presented in front of you,” Mehnert said.

A person with serious mental health issues may exhibit frightening behavior but is more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator, she said.

“We want to make sure people with mental illness get services and that we do not criminalize mental illness any further,” Mehnert said. “We want people in law enforcement to have another skill that helps them get through their day and make it home at night. … We have many people whose only [criminal] charges, unfortunately, are related to assaulting nurses and law enforcement.”

The program has gained in popularity, but still only 2,800 law enforcement agencies, out of 20,000 nationwide, have trained officers in CIT.

Portland is one of six departments nationwide that have been identified as learning sites by the Bureau of Justice, which endorses the crisis intervention training.

Maine has a $90,000 annual contract with NAMI to coordinate CIT classes in the state. The classes are taught by local mental health professionals, and that give officers contacts in the treatment community.

The week-long training involves classwork and role-playing.

“The effectiveness of this CIT training are the role plays that officers are put in, to actually deal with folks that are exhibiting symptoms or behavior similar to a type of mental illness, be it depression or schizophrenia, whatever it is,” said Googins, who undertook the training about four years ago.

“We’re having to use our skills to de-escalate the call, establish a rapport and get the person the help they need,” he said. “The idea is to do it with the least amount of force, and be effective – not just saying, ‘We’re clear, send us to the next call,’ but we’ve done something that might negate a future callback.”