Training helps police in interactions with mentally ill people

    On the job, police officers often encounter people in mental health crisis. So more and more police departments train officers in how to spot and deal with mental illness.

    On the job, police officers often encounter people in mental health crisis. Street corner psychology is tricky; situations can quickly get out of hand. At times, lethal force gets used. So more and more police departments train officers in how to spot and deal with mental illness. WHYY’s Behavioral Health reporter visited a workshop for officers in Montgomery County:

    [audio:100729mscops.mp3]

    Officer Andrew Bochanski from the Upper Dublin Police Department is having a tough time. He is trapped between two people screaming in his ears. Another person is trying to get a message through to him.

    Lucky for Bochanski, this is just a role play to illustrate what it’s like to hear voices inside your head. After a few minutes of simulated madness, Bochanski and Michelle Monzo, who teaches the workshop, discuss the experience:

    Bochanski: It’s hard to respond when you have the two voices going in your head.
    Monzo: did you hear anything she said?
    Bochanski: Yes, I heard her say, what can we do for you.
    Monzo: Now Imagine, you can’t turn that off

    Officers during the “hearing voices” exercise
    Officers during the “hearing voices” exercise
    Getting a better sense of what it’s like to have a mental illness is one aspect of this three-day training course developed by Montgomery County Emergency Services, a non-profit agency. Officers learn how to recognize signs of mental crisis, and how best to interact with the person. For example, Michelle Monzo demonstrates officers’ body language that might seem threatening:

    Monzo: how do I want to stand, because first and foremost is safety, the second most important thing about my body language is – what message am I sending to the mental health consumer who is in crisis – so if I stand like this, they are going to see your hand on your gun

    A frightened person with paranoid tendencies. An armed officer on high alert. That’s a potentially explosive mix. Don Kline is criminal justice director with Montgomery County Emergency Services. He says police calls that seem routine at first can easily spiral into a danger zone:

    Kline: the officer gets on scene and says ‘you have to leave’, the person doesn’t respond, officer says again – ‘you have to leave’, so right away an untrained officer will think – well you are disrespecting me, you don’t have any respect for the law and it starts to escalate right there

    Instructor Michelle Monzo demonstrates body language that might be viewed as threatening
    Instructor Michelle Monzo demonstrates body language that might be viewed as threatening
    Trained officers, says Kline, will recognize when they are dealing with a mentally ill person, and know how to talk them down.

    As this kind of police training becomes more common, you can see encouraging results, says Dan Abreu, associate director of the National Gains Center, which researches this topic.

    Abreu: the individual programs are reporting that there’s less injuries to the citizens, that there’s less injuries to police officers as a result, so I think that there is among law enforcement an awareness that something different has to be done when working with people with mental illness

    Jack Klein of Norristown has struggled with mental illness most of his life. He says his demeanor has often been mistaken for aggression:

    Klein: when I get upset, I have to pace. That doesn’t mean I have to hurt anybody. Pacing back and forth is just a way of working off excess energy.

    Jack Klein often speaks to officers as part of these training sessions – and stresses one point:

    Klein: the importance of remaining calm and avoiding being John Wayne

    The way both sides are portrayed in movies and TV shows often doesn’t help the situation. Cops are shown as trigger-happy, and people with mental illnesses fare worse – Don Klein sums up the pop culture stereotype:

    Kline: you know, they are ax-wielding psychopaths that would rather kill you and wear your skin than talk to you. and that is absolutely not true.

    Group of officers during a training session at MCES
    Group of officers during a training session at MCES
    People with mental illness are actually far more likely to become victims of violent crimes, than to commit one themselves. Officer Ed Haley of Abington Township says meeting people with mental illness during the training made a big impression:

    Haley: It was good to be able to see people who made it all the way, who are rehabilitated, and productive, and doing things, it gives me more of an ability to see people in their darker times, to be able to see them in a positive light later, to better
    help them and be patient

    Fellow officer Joe Blythe says he now has some tools to prevent a single incident from turning into a chronic problem:

    Blythe: we’re in a position to usher in help, rather than remove them from the situation, and then just solve things on the scene at that time, but if we can fix things, then we don’t have to worry about going back at that location over and over and over again

    And this, says Dan Abreu of the Gains Center, is crucial for success. Officers have to know what mental health resources are available, so they can find help for people in crisis, rather than just shuffling them off to jail.

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