Crisis intervention course helps law enforcement assist mentally ill

A program provides law enforcement officers tools to help troubled people.

The 46-year-old man had just lost his job, wanted to kill himself, and kept a gun in his closet.

Responding officers found his suicide note and chatted with him about his problems, how he needed money to send his daughter off to college, how he wasn't sure what was next. They offered to take him to Morton Plant Hospital for an evaluation.

"We need to fix this," Pinellas Sheriff's Deputy Sheila Langlais told him, "and get you some help."

The man was actually Cedric Taylor, a mental health technician who was role-playing in an exercise during Pinellas County's Crisis Intervention Team program, designed to improve interactions between law enforcement and people with mental illness.

"They're not dealing with criminals," said Donald Turnbaugh, past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which helped found the Pinellas program. "They're dealing with people who are ill through no fault of their own."

CIT began in Memphis in 1988 and eventually expanded to other states and countries. Pinellas was the first Florida county, in 1999, to offer it. Now, 40 counties in the state, including Hillsborough, Hernando, and Pasco, participate.

Roughly 1,300 Pinellas officers have completed the 40-hour course, offered for free by mental health professionals, advocates and law enforcement agencies. Statewide, about 20,000 have graduated.

Law enforcement officers come in contact with the mentally ill often. At the Sheriff's Office, the largest agency in Pinellas, deputies respond to an average of eight mental health-related calls a day.

"In the (police) academies, we learn how to shoot, we learn how to drive cars, and we learn how to do all these defensive tactics," said Pinellas Sheriff's Deputy Thomas Kelley, a CIT coordinator. "Using your mouth and using your knowledge is probably going to be more beneficial to the public that are suffering from mental illness than any gun or Taser."

CIT is typically offered twice a year. In October, 35 officers from several departments attended the course and learned about the signs of different illnesses, medication side effects, de-escalation techniques, and information on mental health resources in the county.

On the first day, Kelley asked them to wear headsets. For 30 minutes, the officers listened to what a person suffering a psychotic episode might experience.

The recording started with whispers and giggles, followed by two or three voices:

"I came for you."

"You think this is funny, don't you?"

"They know what you did."

Kelley then asked the officers, while still wearing headphones, to complete a middle school level test on the Dallas Cowboys and a basic word search. Many couldn't complete either.

"When you got four police officers standing in front of you barking orders at you . . . what are they hearing? Who knows," Kelley told them after the exercise. "Let one officer do the talking."

Doug Leonardo, executive director at BayCare Behavioral Health, said CIT-trained officers typically provide relevant information to psychiatric facilities when they bring in someone for an evaluation.

"For the most part, law enforcement really doesn't know whether the individual in front of them has ever been treated, is currently in treatment, or needs treatment," he said. "They're coming upon the scene with more questions than answers. The training they receive really better prepares them for that."

Michael Hatch is among the roughly 160 Clearwater police officers who have received the training. He uses it often to interact with homeless people, many of whom are coping with a mental illness.

Several years ago, Hatch responded to a Clearwater Beach condo after a teenage girl threatened to kill herself. Some officers stayed inside with her parents while Hatch ventured outside to the balcony, where the girl sat on a chair.

After several minutes, she came inside and consented to a psychiatric evaluation.

"Whatever the pains and frustrations that they're having," Hatch said, "you have to be able to relate to them."

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.