Rebecca Halpin sees herself and her colleagues as nothing out of the ordinary.
She learned that not everyone sees police officers, even when they are not in uniform, that way.
On the final day of a weeklong training in crisis intervention, Halpin and other officers from departments across Monroe County were to hear from six people who live with mental illness.
But only three made it to the session.
“One client cracked a tooth because she was so nervous,” said Halpin, a member of the Brighton Police Department. “Another was hospitalized because she got sick just to come to talk to us.
“I don’t think I’m anything special,” said the officer with the Brighton Police Department. “I sit next to these officers. We look at each other as people. But that’s just how much anxiety and worked up these people were talking with us.”
But the three people who did share their life story with the officers, answering questions and asking their own, created what Halpin called the best training experience of her eight-year career in law enforcement.
“What we did on (April 16), as a police officer I wish we could do that more often,” Halpin said.
The session capped a week in which road patrol officers learned how to respond to someone in a crisis – whether brought on by a mental health or neurological disorder or by someone just having bad day because of a car accident or other upsetting event.
The curriculum included indicators of emotional disturbance; mood, anxiety and personality disorders; legal issues; and hospital protocols. Officers heard from families of people living with development disabilities and those of people who have mental illnesses, veterans and learned about communicating with juveniles and older adults.
“The officers know they need more skills,” said Kim Butler, who several years ago created the Forensic Intervention Team for Monroe County, now is an adjunct trainer at the police academy operated by Monroe Community College.
“I don’t think the general public understands that officers never interact with someone when they are doing well,” Butler said. “The majority of officers have a different perspective of mental illness and mental health treatment because they don’t see people who are stable.”
She said that hearing from families and individuals hopefully would change the officers’ perspective.
At the start of the week, officers were asked to rate their knowledge, preparation or comfort level on 10 topics related to mental health, such as dealing with someone with mental illness, psychiatric medications and voicing thoughts of suicide. At the end of the week, the percentage for each category had increased – with a 117% increase in knowledge of medications.
Butler has been teaching the crisis intervention curriculum for five years. The program started in Memphis in 1987. The Rochester Police Department started using it in 2004.
In January, the Monroe County Law Enforcement Council said that in efforts to promote reform, each of its member departments – including RPD – pledged that all their road patrol officers would be trained in crisis intervention. With training limited to 30 individuals and about four sessions planned each year, that could take several years to accomplish.
Participation is voluntary for RPD officers, but interest and participation have increased in the past few years, said Sgt. Steve Boily, CIT commander for RPD and co-instructor of the training. He said 29 officers volunteered for the 10 spots available at the April session.
RPD did not respond to requests to interview an officer who participated in the training.
Boily said CIT could be part of academy training, but he preferred that officers have at least two years on the road so they relate more to the crisis intervention curriculum.
“What the training does is give them a few more tools … to hopefully deal with people more effectively and safely for everybody,” Boily said.
Boily and Butler said the CIT training has been shown to reduce use of force.
“We want the officers to be safe and we want the individuals we’re dealing with to be safe,” Boily said. “That’s the whole premise behind CIT, that the process is making the whole interaction safer.”
The week started with officers posing the questions such as how can you determine if someone has a mental illness when you encounter them, what happens when a person goes to the hospital under mental hygiene detention, what kind of follow-up is provided and what is the liability for not forcing someone to go to a hospital.
“Knowledge is power for us,” said Cody Thomas, a University Police officer at SUNY Brockport.
The rate of teens reporting symptoms of major depression has increased in the second decade of the century, according to reports from the American Psychological Association. Considering the age of college students, Thomas said the information at CIT on medication was particularly useful.
“We’re seeing more people going through crisis,” Thomas said. “The more we know that’s out there, we can help people. I want to take the tools that CIT gives us … to be able to improve my performance and work together with our students, faculty and staff.”