TRAINING OFFICERS TO DEAL WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

istock_000005236471largeThe other day my girlfriend was looking at a video on Facebook. I wasn’t looking at the video, but what I heard was a lot of shouting and then finally multiple gunshots. It was obviously a violent video and I didn’t want to see it.

The next day I saw that she had shared the video on her page which to me meant that whatever the video was about, she felt either passionate about it or angered by it so I decided to watch it. What I saw was an unarmed man, surrounded by five overly aggressive, untrained police officers who end up shooting him.

You can find the video at the end of this post. Warning, some my find it graphic and hard to watch.

During my research for this post, Los Angeles police leaders insist that all of the officers involved in this altercation had some training on dealing with the mentally ill, with some having as little as 11 hours of training. They went as far as they say that the skills learned in the training were used during this encounter, which in some part may be true, but when I see officers taking violent punches at a person and being overly aggressive with little control or coordination, it’s hard for me to see that any crisis intervention techniques were appropriately used.

For over 4 years I worked in a psychiatric hospital where every day we had to deal with at least one hostile patient, some who had just been released from jail and brought directly to our facility. These patients in particular were aggressive and violent and often needed to be restrained for their safety and the safety of others. We often had to “take down” these patients with as little as three staff members actually going hands on. Patients very rarely got hurt. Matter of fact I can’t even think of one incident I was involved in where a patient got hurt. Staff rarely got hurt as well and when they did it was generally superficial scratches. No one ever died. Ever. No patient, no staff member.

Unlike in this video we weren’t armed with more than latex gloves and training in non-violent crisis intervention training. We practiced what is sometimes called “therapeutic hands on” actions, which means that when we did have to put our hands on a patient we did so in a way to quickly gain control of them without trying to hurt them, no matter how violent they are responding to us, unlike in the video where you will see at least one officer swinging away at the inmate as if he were in a mixed martial arts fight.

The officer who says the suspect was reaching for his gun and the officer who appears to have been the most involved with the suspect was the newest officer on the scene with the least amount of training in dealing with mentally ill people.

I’m not saying that all police officers are this way, but many officers when dealing with individuals are overly aggressive and don’t have the patience it takes to appropriately deal with mentally ill people. This is why we see so many unarmed individuals getting killed by police; over aggression and lack of patients. I know their job is dangerous and tough and often times they can’t wait to see what happens before putting themselves in danger.

However, when you have a job where it’s pretty much excepted if you kill someone it’s okay, it makes having to be patient and cautious a lot less likely. Working in the psychiatric hospital, if we killed a patient while trying to restrain him we would most likely get fired, loss our licenses and get sued by the family. Too many officers operate with impunity.

Where I live we are lucky to have Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers who have went through specialized training to deal with mentally ill individuals. Whenever I had to call law enforcement for someone I believed was mental ill I always requested a CIT officers for that individuals safety. CIT officers are more likely to approach mentally ill individuals calmly and take them to the mental hospital instead of jail. They generally don’t over-react or act aggressively. Unfortunately, not all police and sheriff’s departments have CIT officers or good training programs.

What I am advocating here is for more training like the training done by the Clark County Sheriffs Department.

With the appropriate training on how to calm a person down, even when restraining them, the number of unarmed killings by law enforcement officers would go down drastically, mentally ill or not.

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