WPD Training for 21st Century Role

Community policing has taken on another added dimension, one placed squarely on the shoulders of police officers just as pervasive a rising tide as that of storm Sandy or Katrina. Only this one is a flood into society of people in multiple stages of mental distress.

Connecticut experienced this, to a degree, when the consequences made headlines - in Stonington as a grandmother shot her two grandsons before turning a gun on herself; and before that in Newtown as a young Adam Lanza lashed out with disastrous consequences at a nearby elementary school.

 

But there are many more everyday encounters with citizens in crisis when 911 is dialed, and responding officers are challenged to dial up their own level of response to suit the situation at hand. Successful resolutions donít make headlines - but to arrive there requires the same alertness to danger, harm to the innocent and even more training in social services and mental health issues than ever before.

The stakes could not be higher, Windsor Police Sgt. Christopher McKee would agree. That is why WPD put out a new initiative to bring into focus how the role of the police officer has changed in recent years. In addition to sidearms, handcuffs, radios and driving skills, todayís officer has to be adept in all the social sciences, psychology and pharmacology - medications and adverse reactions to going off them. It is a growing social problem, and the role of police supervisors and trainers is to ensure every officer on the street has the right tools to help those in crisis, and especially the youth.

"Going back to the decriminalization of those in mental institutions, and folks coming out into the community more, that meant we were interacting with people in mental crisis far more than before," explains Sgt. McKee at the Windsor Safety complex. "And as we could go through folks coming back with PTSD and ailments from combat, and we saw at different things and how society is changing, we realized that we had to find ways to deal with these kinds of situations."

Veteran officers picked that up early in their careers. But such lessons were often accompanied by hearsay and tips passed down from experienced cops in how to best handle those with mental health issues. Now officers realize they have to equip themselves with the same knowledge a physician or mental health professional might have because they could find themselves trying to resolve a situation and prevent it from becoming a tragedy.

"Our role was always there," adds McKee, "but we weren't necessarily using the best tools to address it. We would encounter someone with mental illness or in a crisis, but we would respond the way we would respond to someone without those conditions. You can't do that because there's a special set of needs that they have."
WPD turned to the Windsor Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a department program spearheaded by Sgt. Jim Bernard and Officer Susan Bowman. CIT has been in existence in Windsor since 2000. Under CIT, a group of Windsor police officers is specifically trained to deal with citizens in mental health situations. The program has been successful, they say, and has been credited with changing the way the entire department assesses an emergency call - and the way the officers themselves are seen by residents - and often families - in need of police assistance.

One key component remained, Bowman said. What was missing was how police and public safety personnel ought to best respond to youths in crisis, and how to help children deal with an arrest of a caregiver.
"During an arrest, the police focus on 'Go in, make an arrest, that's what we're worried about' - making the arrest and getting out of there," McKee observed, "not what the aftereffect is to a child and to the family."
Dr. Jason Lang. an Associate Director of the Connecticut Center for Effective Practice at the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut said the officers themselves also understood more was needed. CHDI is a non-profit group with the goal of ensuring comprehensive, effective, community-based health and mental health care for children. The group advised a set of ìbest practicesî that a police department could adopt for handling such situations. If not addressed, such trauma could perpetuate itself in society.

"The broader initiative started with an interest on children of incarcerated parents. There's a state-wide initiative funded by the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at CCSU," Dr. Lang explained. "They've been looking at services for children whose parents are incarcerated."

Lang submitted a proposal that intervention ought to begin back to the moment of the arrest of a parent rather than asking which parents in prison have kids, and how many?

"Back up to the moment of arrest and looking at what can be done immediately, and support those kids and families, and really to prevent the development of more serious mental health problems or behavioral problems," said Dr. Lang.

Lang solicited psychologist Christopher Bory for his advice on the research of the issue. They came up with a surprising answer: There has been very little research, and virtually no statistics on how kids are impacted, or how many kids were impacted.

"In fact, most police departments don't have typical policies," Lang related. "There's policies if there is nobody to care for a kid, but they don't have policies for 'Dad is arrested, child left behind really upset, not sure when dad's going to come back, mom's left without the primary bread winner, and the family has all this stuff going on.' So police officers are not really trained, and they're not so sure what to do."

So CHDI put together REACT (Responding to Children of Arrested Caregivers Together,) a number of "best practice" recommendations for how law enforcement, as well as EMPS (Emergency Mobil Psychiatric Service) clinicians and DCF can work together to support kids. The initiative was state funded, and was recently rolled out in Waterbury where an extensive pilot program is ongoing.

Windsor is one of the first towns to adopt REACT as part of its CIT-Y program, the extension to CIT that supports young persons with mental issues.

Last month police officers, DCF, and EMPS Mobile Crisis workers and Windsor Public School staff were invited to a workshop at Town Hall. Ten members of WPD and scores of other crisis professionals were trained in the procedures. One of the key outcomes, according to officer McKee, was the realization that police must work collaboratively with school mental health and social work staff, on an almost daily basis, to address the needs of students, staff and parents. The session allowed those active in the field of mental health in Windsor - school counselors, social workers, program directors - to network with police CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) officers.
"Not only [did] we continue to cement our relationship with 'kid friendly' officers such as [SROs] Officer Tkacz and Officer Joseph, but we expanded that to the coordinator of the CIT program, Sgt. Bernard, the officer in charge of the town Juvenile Review board, Officer Denise Bracero, officers working the day shift and other officers very involved or wanting to be very involved in mental health issues in the community," Sgt. McKee said.

Officer Teresa Baboulal said the training showed the department is responsive to the needs of the community.
"We're very positive about caring for people in mental crisis," she said. "Unfortunately, when the 911 call comes  in, it comes in as tumultuous behavior, erratic behavior, violent behavior. I think maybe 20, 30 years ago, that person would have ended up in jail." The fundamental part of having a healthy community, Baboulal says, is to make sure everyone gets the services they need. "There is that empathy, care, and compassion between police and the community," she add.

Officer Bowman also had a strong endorsement for the program.

"CIT and programs like REACT are critical. They should have been here a long time ago," she said, suggesting how valuable they are. "They should actually be at the academy. Police officers should be trained in these prior to coming on the road."

The training is not there yet, however, but it should be, Officer Bowman suggests, "because we deal with people in crisis every day. That's part of our job."