Everett police get special training to help people in crisis

EVERETT — The Everett Police Department has become the second metropolitan law enforcement agency in the state to require its officers to complete 40 hours of crisis intervention training.

The specialized training is meant to help police officers recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and to provide them with advanced communication skills to avoid escalating interactions with people in crisis, such as someone experiencing a psychotic break. The course also gives police officers information about community resources that may be alternatives to hauling someone to jail or an emergency room.

An estimated 2 million people living with mental illness are booked into the nation’s jails every year. Mental illness is more prevalent among jail inmates than the general population. County jails and state prisons have become the country’s largest mental health institutions since the systematic closure of state psychiatric hospitals in the 1980s.

Crisis intervention training has been around since the late 1970s and is becoming more popular among police departments, whose officers often are the first to respond to someone in a crisis, whether it’s drug-induced or stemming from a mental illness.

“We know that out on the street officers have been encountering more untreated and unmedicated people with mental illness,” Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman said. “It was clear to me that it was time to arm our officers with the tools and techniques that will help them be successful dealing with these individuals.”

The first 40-hour session wrapped up Friday for about 20 officers, including some rookies and a handful of veterans with 20-plus years. Classes are scheduled once a month for the rest of the year.

Legislators last year passed a law requiring all police officers to obtain eight hours of crisis intervention training by 2021. Officers also must receive a two-hour refresher course every year.

The state Criminal Justice Training Commission already is providing eight hours of the training to new recruits. It’ll be up to local police departments to train anyone who graduated from the Basic Law Enforcement Academy before June 2014.

The new legislation also recommends that the training commission provide a 40-hour class to 25 percent of the state’s officers assigned to patrol.

The law was named after Doug Ostling, a Bainbridge Island man who was shot to death by police in 2010. Ostling, who lived with mental illness, had called 911 and yelled into the phone. Two officers were escorted to Ostling’s studio apartment above the garage at his parents’ home.

Ostling came to the door with an ax that he’d used to chop kindling. The officers said Ostling advanced on them. An electric stun gun was discharged but to no effect. One officer opened fire. Ostling bled to death while police waited more than an hour to check on his condition.

A federal jury later awarded Ostling’s family $1 million, concluding that the police department failed to properly train its officers.

Since 2008 the state training commission has teamed up with police departments to educate officers on crisis intervention, said Bill Graham, the commission’s program manager for Crisis Intervention Teams.

Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives organized volunteer sessions here around the same time, but those courses were sporadic and fell off, mainly because of funding. King County has had a program since 2010, using proceeds from sales tax.

Many agencies cut back on the training when the recession hit, Graham said.

Back in November there were about 4,000 officers statewide who’d received at least eight hours of crisis intervention training. There are about 10,000 police officers in Washington. The state is on track to meet the new mandate well before the 2021 deadline, Graham said. “We’re averaging about 200 officers a month,” he said.

The Spokane Police Department was the first in the state to require its officers to receive at least 40 hours of crisis intervention training.

That makes Everett the second, Graham said.

Templeman said his priority is for patrol officers to graduate from the course first. Many officers already have at least eight hours of the crisis intervention training, he said.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary will not require more than eight hours from his deputies at this point. He said part of the proposed public safety tax would be dedicated to providing more crisis intervention training to deputies and corrections officers working in the jail.

“I think we need a lot more than eight hours a year,” Trenary said. “We’d absolutely love to provide more, but it’s about the funding.”

Often departments must pay overtime to backfill for the officers attending the class. The commission can provide some financial assistance, Graham said.

Everett partnered up with the state training commission and the sheriff’s office to create curriculum specific to the county. The 40-hour class is open to all law enforcement agencies in the region and eventually will be offered to emergency medical responders and mental health professionals, Everett police Sgt. Trevor Townsend said.

Often officers here have been going to King County for the training, but that course focuses on resources that aren’t in Snohomish County.

Templeman said he tasked his training unit to develop the curriculum that was specific to the resources that are available here, such as the triage center or the Crisis Prevention and Intervention Team. The course also includes speakers from the Snohomish County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which advocates for families and their ill loved ones.

NAMI’s involvement allows “an opportunity to provide officers with context and perspective through interactions with caregivers as well as direct exchange with persons living with a mental illness,” the group’s president Keith Binkley said.

He is hopeful that will lead to greater care and compassion on the part of police officers.

Townsend said the training doesn’t impact the fundamentals critical to law enforcement. It’s advanced training that builds on what officers already do, he said.

“We’re always dealing with people in crisis, whether it’s mental illness or domestic violence. We want to recognize that there’s more to it than arresting our way out of the problem,” Townsend said. “We want officers to see what’s involved.”

A primary benefit to the training is learning what social service agencies are available to those in need, he said. There hasn’t always been collaboration between police and mental health professionals. That is improving in Snohomish County.

Officers on Thursday spent most of the day hearing from Ellis Amdur, a certified mental heath counselor and veteran crisis intervention educator.

“You’re not looking around for mentally ill people, right?” he asked the class. “There will be a 1,000 people with severe mental illness that you never contact.”

When officers must engage it’s important to assess whether intervention is even necessary, Amdur said. There’s a difference between a man mumbling to himself who’s not causing any trouble, and someone in crisis, screaming at passersby.

The approach is crucial, Amdur said.

He advised officers not to validate a person’s delusions. Don’t argue with him, but don’t pretend to see or hear something that’s not there, Amdur explained.

“I don’t see it, but I believe you do. I’m not calling you crazy,” he suggested. “You may be the lifeline back to the world they’re exiled from.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley

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