Mental illness training for police closer to reality

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein

Portland police are hearing from people who suffer from mental illnesses and are also listening to fellow officers discuss their own family members’ struggles in a new crisis intervention training curriculum that began this month.

Lt. Sara Westbrook said the revamped curriculum is more focused around real people.

“Because we’re hearing it from our own,” she said, “the message is ‘There is no “us” and “them.” ‘ “

Westbrook, recently appointed as coordinator of the bureau’s mental health training, invited members of Central City Concern and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare’s Project Respond, the county’s mental health crisis outreach program, to suggest ways the curriculum could be improved.

Westbrook said she’s striving to make the training useful for officers who are encountering more and more people suffering from mental illness on the street. In 1995, when she went through the 40-hour instruction, Westbrook said it was interesting but the outside instructors, including therapists and other mental health experts, didn’t have the perspective of police.

“Frankly, they talked above us,” Westbrook said. “It was too academic for us.”

Two-year process

The new training is expected to last two years to get all patrol officers and sergeants, as well as Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies, certified as crisis intervention officers. It came in response to the Sept. 17 death of James P. Chasse Jr. in police custody. Chasse, 42, suffered from schizophrenia when police encountered him and chased him, thinking he was acting oddly and possibly on drugs. Officers knocked Chasse to the ground and a struggle ensued to handcuff him. Chasse died from broad-based blunt trauma to his chest. He had no drugs on him or any in his system.

In October, Mayor Tom Potter announced he’d set aside $500,000 over the next two years to help Portland police run all patrol officers through 40 hours of specialized training on dealing with people suffering from a mental illness.

Portland’s 40 hours of crisis intervention training for officers had been voluntary since the program began in 1994 under former Chief Charles Moose. Portland police and mental health advocates, including psychologists and psychiatrists, have provided the instruction, which includes classroom and realistic scenario training. The officers were taught how to approach and talk to someone in a crisis in order to defuse the situation before it escalated into violence.

The bureau videotaped three to four people with mental illnesses telling their stories. One of the four had significant contact with police several years ago. The bureau also asked officers to relay their own stories about relatives who suffer from mental illness. The videotaped accounts are played as part of the training. In addition, the bureau plays old TV episodes of “COPS,” some dating to 1985, to critique.

Through critiques, officers are taught the proper way to interact with people suffering from mental illness, such as the proper tone of voice and body language to use, Westbrook said.

Program draws praise

Westbrook briefed community representatives about the new training at Tuesday’s Chief’s Forum.

Jason Renaud, of the Mental Health Association of Portland, lauded the bureau’s efforts. Renaud said he was pleased Westbrook brought in Central City Concern and is including addiction as an element for the mental health training. He also applauded the sharing of officers’ own stories.

“That’s taking advantage of that trusting relationship to open up people’s minds and hearts to behave with compassion,” Renaud said. “This is a big step, and these are the right people making it.”

A couple of forum members expressed an interest in sitting in on the training. Forum members T. J. Browning and Richard Brown suggested that any “us” versus “them” mentality between police and the community usually evaporates when all are sitting in the same room together.

A closed session

But Westbrook was hesitant to open the training to outsiders. She said strangers would stifle some officers from sharing their personal stories. Already, she said, some officers are resistant to the mandated training since it’s coming in the aftermath of the Chasse case. Westbrook also declined to allow a media representative to sit in on part of the training, saying it would inhibit discussion.

Richard King, president of the Portland Police Association, said it’ll be great if police learn something new in the training, but he’s not that enthusiastic about it, either. “Every time something happens, we create more policies and training,” King said. “I think police officers are pretty used to this dance.”

Police Chief Rosie Sizer said she recognizes that the crisis training is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

“It’s not going to change every encounter” the chief said, “but I think it’s going to improve the services we provide to these people.”

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