published Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Officers focusing on crisis intervention

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    Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Deputy Stephen Short assumed the role of a Vietnam-era Marine veteran during the role playing section of Crisis Intervention Team training. Law enforcement officers taking CIT courses recently met for a lecture and role playing opportunities at Hamilton County Sheriff's West Annex.

A man calls police because his brother, a Vietnam War veteran, is acting strangely, not taking his medications and saying angry words, but the vet hasn't broken any laws.

What do officers do?

"Before, you would go out to the calls and you didn't know any other options except jail," said Chattanooga Police Department Officer Joe Kerns. "They don't need to go to jail. Mostly they need help with their mental illness."

Since September 2009, the Crisis Intervention Team training program in Hamilton County has helped teach law enforcement officers how to deal with such volatile situations, both for their own safety and the safety of the mentally ill and their families.

Officer Kerns and Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy Stephen Short graduated from the first Crisis Intervention Team training in September 2009. They were on hand this week as role players for the second class of trainees.

Throughout the role-playing exercise, students took turns talking with Deputy Short, a former Marine, who played the part of a Vietnam veteran having mental difficulties.

Each participant approached the veteran and talked with him in a calm tone of voice, despite Deputy Short's shouting and haphazard actions, including lining stools in a row, shouting commands and dropping to do pushups.

Crisis intervention focuses mostly on working with people who either have a mental illness and are behaving erratically or with people who might be in a stressed mental state and not otherwise thinking clearly, said retired Maj. Sam Cochran, formerly of the Memphis Police Department.

The major helped develop the training program in 1988 at the Memphis department and since has taken the training to others in Tennessee and neighboring states.

The training may be for law enforcement personnel, but to make things work there has to be cooperation from all angles, local team members said.

"The police are the first on site," said Mark Shively, supervisor of the crisis response team at Fortwood Mental Health Center in Chattanooga. "We're trying to coordinate better, get to know each other better."

As part of the response team, Mr. Shively works directly with people who need mental health services.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Capt. Michael Cribbs, who coordinates the Crisis Intervention Team training, said simply listening is one of the most important things an officer can do when encountering a person with mental health problems.

By using a calm tone, speaking with the person and offering help, trying to find out if they've seen a counselor or would like to, the situation deescalates, and often an arrest and any physical confrontation can be avoided, he said.

But if someone has broken the law or presents a safety risk, police still may arrest or restrain an individual, Capt. Cribbs said.

The Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday approved a $250,000 federal grant to fund a Crisis Intervention Team director at $59,000 a year for four years.

CRISIS INTERVENTION TEAM HISTORY

In 1988, the Memphis Police Department partnered with the Memphis Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health providers and the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee to organize, train and implement a specialized unit. The Crisis Intervention Team program is designed to ensure safety, understanding and service for the mentally ill and their families.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office held its first CIT class in September 2009 and trained 18 participants. A second class of 18 graduated Friday.

Source: Memphis Police Department Web Site and newspaper archives

G.A. Bennett, director of support services for the sheriff's office, said that, in the long run, the program will save the county money by keeping people out of the jail who don't need to be there.

Often, he said, putting a person with mental health problems in the jail can worsen the situation.

Toward the end of the role-playing exercise this week, the last officer to interact with Deputy Short's Vietnam vet character told him that he might find some help at the local veterans center.

"I've got some friends over there, they help soldiers like you, Marines, that have had problems sleeping, with the memories, with having dreams," said Sgt. Rex Minton, Hamilton County corrections officer.

"Is it all right if you drive me over there?" Deputy Short asked.

"I'll drive you over there," Sgt. Minton said.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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tdempsey said...

This is the kind of sensible enhancement to our local criminal justice system that can really make a difference, improving public safety while keeping people with mental health concerns from getting inadvertently sucked into prison (where their circumstances get worse and worse and worse...ultimately making their return to the community a deferred disaster for everyone involved). My hat is off to the Crisis Intervention Team!

March 6, 2010 at 9:44 a.m.
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