Training Police To Handle Mental Illness Cases Many of the calls police officers are sent on involve people with mental illness. Often they end in tragedy, with the death of the suspect or the officer. Training programs are trying to help cops confront mental illness without using deadly force
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Training Police To Handle Mental Illness Cases

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Training Police To Handle Mental Illness Cases

Training Police To Handle Mental Illness Cases

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One of the most difficult encounters a police officer can have is with a person having a psychotic episode. Cops have to figure out immediately that the person may not be able to understand or obey the officer. Every year there are tragedies, including something called suicide by cop.

That's where people with psychoses attack officers or other people, leaving the officers little choice but to take deadly action. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports on the growing awareness of the problem and a possible solution.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Darek Ardoin is a deputy with the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana. He trains police officers to deal with people with mental illnesses, and he goes out on patrol himself. Last year, he found himself in a situation.

Mr. DAREK ARDOIN (Deputy, Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office): A lady had called saying that someone was in her attic and was trying to get to her.

SILBERNER: Her husband wouldn't go into her bedroom, clued Ardoin that it wasn't safe for him, either. He asked about weapons. The husband said she had a knife.

Mr. ARDOIN: And so I asked, of course, well, would she have it with her now? And he said, well, she always has it with her.

SILBERNER: Ardoin had his crisis intervention training to rely on. The idea is to give police an alternative to forcefully subduing someone and to protect themselves, too. Studies show trained officers are injured much less often on mental disturbance calls.

Several hundred police departments across the country now offer the training, which was inspired by a Memphis police department program started in the last 1980s. Russell Laine, head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, says intervention training is seen as having real value.

Mr. RUSSELL LAINE (International Association of Chiefs of Police): If the person is bent on committing suicide and having the officer shoot him, sometimes there isn't anything the officer can do. But the officer has some degree of training, you know, he might be able to take some alternative actions and not have to shoot someone.

SILBERNER: There are no national figures available on suicide by cop. When it happens, it's hard on officers. Ardoin has trained cops who have been involved in an incident. They sign up for training as help for their own post traumatic stress disorder.

When Ardoin was dealing with the woman with the knife, he used lesson number one from his training: take your time. The woman was watching an episode of "CSI" on the TV in her bedroom. She was talking to the TV as if she was the victim in the show. He stopped at the door. He could see the knife.

Mr. ARDOIN: It was laying next to her on the bed. She did not want her husband to take her to the hospital. It was difficult convincing her that I wasn't there to harm her, that I wasn't there to take her to jail.

SILBERNER: For 20 minutes, he quietly reassured her, and finally, she agreed to go to the hospital.

The situation can be scary for the person under investigation as well. Sandra Spencer is executive director of the National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. She has a son with bipolar disorder. When he was 12 and walking home from a friend's house, two police officers stopped him.

Ms. SANDRA SPENCER (Executive Director, National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health): Because he was afraid, didn't understand because of his mental health conditions. He was manic, because of his bipolar disorder he was, you know, he was shaken and he wasn't coherent.

SILBERNER: She told him never to do anything suspicious when stopped by an officer. But her son couldn't process the instruction to keep his hands where they could see them.

Ms. SPENCER: So my son reached in his pocket to get his cell phone and guns were drawn.

SILBERNER: One cop realized that her son was agitated, not homicidal, and told the other cop to hold back. They managed to handcuff him and brought him home. The close call left Spencer determined to help other parents. Her group puts out guidelines, telling parents, for example, that if your kid has a breakdown and you call the police, don't fly out the door when they get there. They might assume you have the problem are coming out to attack them.

Spencer thinks things are getting better, and a little more money is coming in. The Department of Justice is spending $10 million on training and related programs this year, up from six-and-a-half million dollars last year.

Again, Police Chief Russell Laine.

Mr. LAINE: I think they're getting better because people are aware that they're trying to get the proper training. They're looking at what's the best way that we can deal with this. They realize it's an issue.

SILBERNER: Laine and many other law enforcement officials say what's needed next is better community psychiatric services so crises won't happen, or if they do, there's a place for officers to take people other than jail or the emergency room.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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