Police officers learn to help those experiencing mental health crisis

EVERETT — His brain plays cruel tricks.

It conjures up voices and secret plots that make him afraid for his life. He hears animals screaming and phantom gunfire. He’s suspicious when his parents don’t hear the commotion. His agitation is noticeable in the way he worries his hands.


e 31-year-old man is living with paranoid schizophrenia. His symptoms appeared not long after he started his senior year in high school.

His parents recently shared their son’s story with a room full of police offic

ers and other law enforcement workers from Snohomish County as part of crisis intervention training.

The week-long seminar was geared toward giving first-responders advanced communication skills at interacting with mentally ill people in crisis, according to Snohomish Police Detective Kendra Conley and Snohomish County sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Ross.

This is the third year that Conley and Ross have organized the voluntary police training. With help from Sheriff John Lovick and Snohomish Police Chief John Turner, they brought the program to Snohomish County after attending sessions in Wenatchee.

“Officers are the front-line responders to these individuals in our community. Crisis intervention training is intended to offer additional skills to handle these situations which often require a rapid, sensitive and skilled response,” Conley said.

Police officers are taught techniques to help de-escalate interactions with people experiencing psychotic breaks or other mental health crises. Officers are guided around verbal land mines that could create more agitation and fear among those in crisis.

“This doesn’t change your defensive tactics. You’re going to focus on the behavior, not the diagnosis,” said Ellis Amdur, a longtime mental health professional and martial artist whose lecture spanned two days.

The idea isn’t to ask officers to compromise their safety but to enhance their communication skills, he said.

Officers are taught that it’s probably not best to engage in someone’s delusions. Instead, Amdur advised them that if the situation allows, officers can look for cues that can lead the conversation down a more productive path.

If a guy who is rambling about demons is wearing a football jersey, try to ask him about the team, Amdur told the class.

“They may learn to associate you with people that help them stabilize,” he said.

The training also provides police officers a primer on commonly diagnosed mental illnesses and their symptoms. The officers learn what resources are available in Snohomish County for someone who doesn’t necessarily belong in jail, but needs a safe place to stabilize. The system can be difficult to navigate, if the officers aren’t familiar with the resources, Conley said.

She and Ross shared information with participants about the new triage center operating in Everett. Police officers are able to take people in crisis to the center rather than jail or an emergency room. The center can hold people for a short period in an effort to have them evaluated for additional services if necessary.

Conley and Ross said their goal is to one day have an officer with crisis intervention training on every shift in every department. They’ve also been asked to tailor training for emergency dispatchers and firefighters.

The training isn’t a magic wand, Conley and Ross said.

“Unfortunately, C.I.T. will not change the possibility of use of force when someone’s life is in danger,” Ross said.

One of the most valuable insights from the training is input from people whose lives are affected by mental illness.

“It is a reminder that every person we encounter in a crisis is someone’s brother, mother, father or child. The more open communication we have between police officers and the public helps mutual understanding. It often answers the ‘why’ questions that during a crisis there might not be time for,” Conley said.

Her father, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran, speaks to the class about his experience with post traumatic stress disorder. It’s a gut-wrenching conversation that is aimed at giving officers insight into people struggling with invisible wounds, and how that can play out in real life.

Also during the training, officers met one-on-one with people living with mental illness or the relatives of mentally ill men and women.

The families and patients want the officers to know that not everyone with a mental illness is dangerous. More often they are afraid and aren’t rational because of their illness, not because they want to create problems.

“Please remember that you are seeing that family at their worst. They’ve probably used all the coping skills that they’ve learned over the years and they’ve been unsuccessful. You’re coming into a highly emotionally charged situation that may have been going on for days if not weeks,” said the father of the 31-year-old man who is living with schizophrenia.

He and his wife share their experiences with law enforcement to help officers better understand the challenges families face. The couple asked that they not be named to protect their son’s privacy.

The Clark County couple shared family photographs. The pictures showed a happy, smiling boy who loved the outdoors and his little sister. He was studious and tenacious, his parents said. He was an Eagle Scout.

Then he began to change. He became withdrawn and communication with him became difficult. Once a good student, he started cutting classes and his grades slipped. He told his parents he hated school. His classmates were always whispering behind his back, saying he didn’t belong there, the teen said.

His parents talked to a school counselor and a psychologist.

Then one day, while sitting on the couch with his family, the boy opened up.

“They’re coming to get me,” he said.

He went on to explain that the people watching him through the mirrors were bent on killing him.

The family’s journey with schizophrenia began.

His parents told the police class that they believe an officer’s safety is the first priority. However, they offered some insight into how schizophrenia affects their son, which they hope could help the officers understand some of the behavior they may see in others living with the illness.

Their son doesn’t like to make eye contact and avoids strangers. He becomes extremely focused on his delusions. When that happens, not even his parents can have a rational conversation with him.

One officer asked what could calm him down.

His son always wears a sports team cap. Talk to him about the team, his dad recommended. He’ll talk all day about sports.

The man’s parents are grateful that their son is good about taking his medication, and he hasn’t had a run-in with police.

They understand that there are parents who are forced to call 911 for help in a time of crisis.

“What we want to do is back up and let you see that family before you get that call,” the man said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

To get help

For more information about resources available to those living with mental illness and their families, go to the Snohomish County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami snohomishcounty.org.

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