Mental health issues challenge police

by Alison Gene Smith

TWIN FALLS • Police radios across the city lit up 100 times in 2012 with the same call: Someone in Twin Falls was threatening suicide.

That’s nearly twice a week, every week.

Police were called an additional 54 times to help with a person experiencing a mental illness.

“A lot of those situations, we’re drawn there because someone is concerned about someone’s behavior,” police Capt. Matt Hicks said.

When officers are called for a mentally ill person, they use different techniques than the average call.

“A lot of encounters are not necessarily criminal matters,” Hicks said.

Someone in the midst of a mental health crisis might not comprehend why police are there, which could cause a violent conflict, Hicks said.

Officers are trained to use different techniques than they would on an average call.

Words and body language are changed to help put a person at ease, he said.

Officers should do anything they can to avoid arresting someone having a mental health problem, Hicks said. A criminal arrest should be a last resort.

“That does not resolve the situation and can make it worse,” he said.

Idaho is starting to adopt a program, called Crisis Intervention Team Training, to help better respond to mental health calls, Hicks said. It’s a shift in how police handle these situations.

“It’s a lot more comprehensive training than we’re able to provide,” He said.

The goal is to intervene without using traditional police force.

One of the purposes of CIT training is bringing mental health and medical personnel and police together as teams who can call on each other when help is needed.

Those tactics are still being developed though, Hicks said.

“I think it’s safe to say that everyone collectively involved, we’re a little behind,” Hicks said.

In general, Hicks said, he believes police are more often the first on the scene during a mental health crisis then they used to be.

Both police officers and the general public are better educated on mental health and what signs to look for.

“Behavior before might have been passed off as antisocial or borderline violent,” he said. “Now people recognize it as a mental health issue.”

People know if they call the police, they’ll get some kind of help, he said.

The problem is, a disturbed person might find normal police tactics more threatening than the average person.

That’s why officers need to change techniques, such as looking for clues in the person’s body language that they might be experiencing extra stress.

About two years ago, the police department sent several officers on a weeklong mental health academy.

They, in turn taught smaller classes to their fellow officers when they returned.

Since then the department has had annual refresher courses.

But, Hicks said, more comprehensive annual training for officers would be ideal.

These trainings have helped shape the way police do their job.

“In the past we may have just assumed that the person was not suffering from a mental illness and is just being aggressive,” Hicks said.

Now, an officer is more likely back off a little, and call in a mental health professional.

One goal an officer has in opening a line of communication with the subject, Hicks said. Hopefully, the person will volunteer to get help and the officer can help facilitate that.

If the person may be a danger to themselves or others, the officer will take the person into protective custody.

Twin Falls Police have taken 40 people into protective custody so far this year. Last year, in the same time period, the number was 54.

Generally, they are taken to an emergency room, where a person known as a “designated examiner” decides if the person should be held for 24 hours. This is known as a 24-hour commitment.

“It’s until a judge can review the facts around the incident,” Hicks said.

It also gives time for the person to be evaluated by a mental health professional.

Locally, during a 24-hour commitment, people stay at St. Luke’s Canyon View Behavioral Health Services. Occasionally, if Canyon View is full, the person will stay at a Treasure Valley facility, Hicks said.

Don Hall, director of the law enforcement program at the College of Southern Idaho, said an influx of returning war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress along with dropping state and federal mental health funds may have contributed to officers responding more often to mental health calls.

More than 250,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and sought Veterans Administration services in 2012 showed signs of PTSD, according to the VA.

There have been about 2.5 million deployments to those countries since September 2001 according to the U.S. Department of Defense. About half of those are troops were deployed more than once.

Recently, it has become more acceptable to identify as having a mental illness, said Scott Rasmussen, program manager for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s regional office in Twin Falls.

This has led to more people are participating in counseling services, he said.

“It’s probably the influence of media, but there’s also a myth individuals are extremely violent, they’re not,”Rasmussen said.

National statistics show that people with mental health issues are no more violent than the general person and are actually more likely to be the victim of violence, he said.

Both Hall and Hicks said they don’t recall having a class dedicated to mental health when they went through the police academy. Hall went through the training in 1989, and Hicks, about 20 years ago.

Now, six hours of mental health curriculum are included in the basic patrol academy classes at Peace Officer Standards and Training, said Joe Whilden, curriculum coordinator, at POST in Meridian.

The 10-week basic academy includes 57 classes totaling about 566 hours, including distance learning classes that the students take before he or she arrives at the academy.

First, students take a two-hour distance learning class that covers major types of mental disorders, sich as schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder, Whilden said.

Once at the academy, they take another four-hour class with more information.

“The classroom portion covers more in-depth about disorders and also talks about how the Idaho law defines mental illness,” he said.

There are eight tracts that students can go through: patrol, dispatch, detention, corrections, felony probation and parole, misdemeanor probation, reserve police officer and juvenile detention and probation.

All have some kind of mental health classes, Whilden said.

Each has slightly different information. For example, Whilden said, in the corrections tract, students learn how to deal with special needs inmates, including those with a mental illness.

Recently, POST did a job analysis of patrol officers to see if basic curriculum lines up with the tasks officers are required to do every day.

If that analysis shows a greater need for mental health training, classes could change, Whilden said.

The law enforcement program at CSI mirrors POST, Hall said.

“I think it’s a good overview,” he said. “Once they’re out in the field there needs to be additional training,” he said.

The police academy, and the law enforcement program both offer a lot of issues and it is up to each individual police department to further the training of their officers, Hall said.

“We’re happy that officers are getting more comprehensive training and more of these things will be successfully resolved,” Hicks said.

But, Hicks said, more frequent, ongoing training would be ideal.

“The training is good, and more is needed.”