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Here's a question the State of Connecticut is struggling with: How do you tell the difference between someone who needs to be taken to jail and someone who needs to be taken to the hospital? The intersection of law enforcement and mental health had a renewed focus since the Newtown shootings of 2012. Yesterday, the Connecticut Legislature passed a bill requiring mental health training to be available for police.
Jeff Cohen, of member station WNPR, spent some time with officers to learn about it.
JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: Lance Newkirchen is a regular patrol officer in the town of Fairfield. But he's also an officer who's specifically trained to respond to mental health calls. I'm in the car with him as he goes on one.
OFFICER LANCE NEWKIRCHEN: We're going to go meet with a father whose 21-year-old son, two days earlier, at three o'clock in the morning, through his depressive disorder, was having suicidal thoughts.
COHEN: Officers like Newkirchen get the kind of training they need to tell the difference between a criminal event and a mental health event. And understanding that can mean treating people instead of simply locking them up. In Fairfield, officers also follow up with people in crisis a few days after the first call. Police say they want to make sure families have as much support as they can. They also want to make sure police have as much information as they can, in case they ever have to go back.
NEWKIRCHEN: They know they're dealing with someone who is depressed. They know that they're dealing with someone who may have a samurai sword collection in their basement. They know that they're dealing with someone whose parents are divorced and the father is very anti-police and the mother is pro-police.
These are all things that will get somebody, an officer responding, as he's walking up the front walk, get him 90 percent of the information he needs to be effective.
COHEN: The family agreed to let NPR attend the interview, but wanted neither to be identified nor taped. Inside, Newkirchen talks through a brochure of services. He also has a two-page list of questions.
NEWKIRCHEN: Great, so the diagnosis right now, it's my understanding that your son has been diagnosed with some sort of depressive disorder? Is that correct? OK. Is it manic depression? Is it depression? Is it bipolar, do you know?
How long ago was he diagnosed?
COHEN: After we leave, Newkirchen says doing this job doesn't mean being soft or forgetting police tactics. It just means adding to them.
NEWKIRCHEN: It's easy to interview and to get the person who just stole four tires from BJ's to really tell you what's going on. And it's incredibly difficult to get someone who believes they have an assignment from the FBI to really admit that they don't, and they do need help and it's time to go and talk to somebody at the hospital. So that's the skills set.
MADELON BARANOSKI: Good morning. It's a privilege to be here. I like to call the...
COHEN: I first met Newkirchen a few weeks ago, as 50 or so officers from across the state gathered for the first day of a five-day seminar. It touched on everything from making suicide assessments to talking to people on the autism spectrum. They also discussed forging partnerships with community mental health providers and understanding de-escalation techniques.
BARANOSKI: The characteristic of your work that sets you apart from every other professional is that you never know what you're walking into.
COHEN: That's Madelon Baranoski. She's with the Yale School of Medicine. And her first goal is to give the officers an understanding of various types of behavioral health issues. Take, for instance, psychotic illnesses. Those, she says, are the ones that make a person unable to tell the difference between thought and reality. To illustrate, she confesses something many people feel when giving a public talk: She's nervous and she's worried about how people will react. But she knows those are her thoughts and no one else's.
BARANOSKI: As long as I know I'm thinking it, I have a choice on how to change my behavior. But if I were mentally ill, particularly if I had a mental illness that interfered with what we call reality testing, I think, because you're staring at me, you're thinking think I'm stupid.'
COHEN: This training is an eye opener for third-year Fairfield Officer John McGrath.
OFFICER JOHN MCGRATH: You know, protocol for a police officer is always: Protect yourself. And to be able to learn what's going on in their mind, kind of gives you a better perspective of what you're able to do to further protect yourself and to protect them to, you know, not hurt themselves.
COHEN: Officer Newkirchen says that the training these people in law enforcement professionals are getting is extremely practical. He probably gets two or three mental health related calls in an eight-hour shift. Back in the cruiser, he says not all calls go as well as the visit with the family of the man who was suicidal. But a lot of them do.
NEWKIRCHEN: I would say 50 percent of the time, are calls like this where we are making I think a huge difference. We won't be back, and that family has a very different sense of what we do as police officers.
COHEN: Late last night, Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill ensuring that all police in the state can get some kind of training like Newkirchen's.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen.
BLOCK: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WNPR and Kaiser Health News.
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