Officials: Training helps officers work with mentally ill

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Nico Savidge
Tuesday, November 19, 2013

JANESVILLE—On a Sunday morning, not long after she spent a week learning how to recognize and treat mentally ill men and women, Janesville police officer Laurie Valley was called to a church parking lot.

Someone had reported a boy trying to break into cars, and Valley soon found her suspect.

When she took the boy by the arm to lead him to her squad car, however, the boy pulled away, telling her he didn't like being touched.

The training she'd just gotten started to kick in.

“It was very apparent something was wrong or just off,” Valley said. “The way he said it reminded me of this class I just got done with.”

Before that training, Valley said, she would've gotten tougher with the boy, latching onto him and forcing him into the car before taking him home for a stern lecture she's given plenty of times in 15 years as an officer.

This time, though, she let the boy walk at his own pace and soon got him into her squad.

Once she got to the boy's home, Valley said, she knew the right questions to ask—if the boy had a caseworker (he did) and if he was taking medications (he was, a lot of them, but they'd just changed, and he didn't like how they made him feel).

Improving an officer's ability to spot symptoms of mental illnesses and to more effectively work with people who have them is a main goal of Rock County Crisis Intervention Team training for Rock County law enforcement, police and health officials say.

“It's all about helping improve law enforcement's response to individuals during a mental health crisis,” said Kate Flanagan, who oversees mental health services in Rock County.

Rather than simply arresting mentally ill men and women and throwing them into a jail where the might not get the help they need, officers learn what services are available and who to contact for help, Valley said.

“We're able to get them on the right track quicker than just taking them to jail and have Crisis (Intervention Services) deal with them there,” Valley said.

After two years of state funding, budget changes could put the training in jeopardy, however.

The training was funded through a grant from the state Office of Justice Assistance, which was eliminated in the state budget this summer and folded into the state Department of Justice, county criminal justice system planner Elizabeth Pohlman McQuillen said.

Grants of about $70,000 in 2012 and $50,000 this year covered the cost of the program and the cost of officers filling in for officers who spent the week in training, Pohlman McQuillen said.

It remains to be seen if that grant still will be available in 2014, though Pohlman McQuillen said she's optimistic.

Sixty-one officers from four local agencies—the Rock County Sheriff's Office, Janesville police, town of Beloit police and Beloit police—have been through training in 2012 and 2013.

For Janesville police, that includes patrol officers such as Valley as well as supervisors and field training officers, who pass on the skills to other cops, Deputy Chief John Olsen said. He hopes more officers can take part.

The 40-hour training is put on by the Waukesha chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and by law enforcement officials.

To get an idea of what some mentally ill people experience, officers are fitted with headphones to simulate hearing voices from auditory hallucinations. They then are asked to do tasks such as carrying on a conversation and writing paperwork, Flanagan said.

Officers also learn practical techniques dial back tense and potentially dangerous situations, she said.

The hope is that officers with their training can not only approach mentally ill men and women with more empathy and compassion but also use resources more effectively to help them, Flanagan said.

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