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Local law enforcement learns about how to handle crisis situations

Houston Police Department sent trainers including Rebecca Skillern (kneeling front left) to train local law enforcement in the practice of crisis intervention. The class lasted one week and was held at ILEA. (Submitted Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Rebecca Skillern is in Roswell to provide area law enforcement with new tools to better serve the community.

“I’m with the Houston Police Department,” Skillern said, “and we are here to provide the 40 hour mental health officer training for local law enforcement in Roswell and surrounding areas.”

The Houston Police Department is one of the best sources of Crisis Intervention Training in the country.

“We are considered one of the nation’s leaders in CIT, which is Crisis Intervention Training,” Skillern said. “We were designated by the Council of State Governments as one of six learning sites back in 2010. One of the main functions that we provide through that designation is the 40 hour mental health training as well as hosting site visits in Houston where other agencies will come in and look at our programs and take what they can and replicate crisis intervention programs of their own.”

Skillern said that they train mostly law enforcement officers, but there are times when others are trained in crisis intervention as well.

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“Two security personnel from the college here are in our class,” she said. “Oftentimes, we’ll have some behavioral health professionals in the class. We typically try to limit it to people who are somehow involved in the crisis intervention process with law enforcement.”

The most effective way to ensure everyone’s safety, they’ve found, is to ensure officer safety.

“We do approach it from an officer safety standpoint,” Skillern said. “We have to keep our officers safe in order to keep our people who are living with mental illness safe. Basically if you’re not safe you can’t keep anybody else safe.”

The course is intensive and packed with information.

“We cover a large amount of information in a very limited amount of time,” Skillern said, “so we cover the history and background of crisis intervention training. We talk about some of the very unfortunate fatal incidents where either an officer or a community member were fatally wounded in an encounter.”

They cover a variety of mental illnesses in the class.

“We talk about the major mental illnesses,” Skillern said. “When I say major mental illnesses I’m talking about depression, bipolar, schizo-affective, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorder. We talk about some of the stress disorders. We talk about some of the personality disorders. We also talk about anxiety disorders because we will come into contact with that frequently, typically by hoarding individuals.”

They teach the officers to self-monitor and to look out for each other, too.

“We talk about how the well-being and safety of the officer is just as imperative,” Skillern said, “and how officers are susceptible to things like post traumatic stress disorder or depression or both. We talk about the cumulative effects of just the things that we encounter as law enforcement personnel may have that kind of an outcome in us and how to recognize the signs and symptoms associated with all the mental illnesses.”

They use actors to give officers the chance to show what they’ve learned and to see it in action.

“We do role play scenarios where we will have actors who role play a scene involving someone in crisis,” Skillern said. “With those scenes we have the officers go in, in pairs, and respond to them. We’re looking for the other things that we’ve taught such as active listening skills, verbal de-escalation skills and safe communication.”

Much of the training is about information gathering and organizing.

“We train them to verbally de-escalate situations,” she said, “so that they stay safe and they can get the information that they need because oftentimes that’s not given when someone calls in. They may call in a disturbance and so an officer thinks they are responding to a family disturbance and it turns out someone is having a mental health crisis, someone who is off their medication, someone who is having a difficult time just dealing with daily aspects of living and because of their mental illness they have a harder time processing that and tend to deteriorate frequently.”

Another factor they discuss is medications.

“We also briefly cover psychotropic medications and some of the effects that will have on folks,” Skillern said. “We try to educate them on how, even though people may be taking their medications, sometimes they may not be as effective as we’d like them to be. We talk about side effects and some of the reasons why people are non-compliant with their medications, not that it makes it better, but it gives them some understanding of people that they may encounter.”

The teach about more than mental health disorders, however.

“We cover intellectual and developmental disabilities in this class as well as Alzheimer’s, dementia and autism,” Skillern said. “In the 40 hour class we’ll give a little bit of information about a lot of different things. When we do our eight hour update we’ll spend more time on one specific area.”

This program can be a part of a train-the-trainer arrangement.

“Many of the people who come through our training are designated by local agencies as folks that they want to provide further training,” Skillern said. “These people take our course and then get whatever their state’s basic instructor certification class is. With those together they are equipped to become a trainer in this area.

“We remain a resource to them even after we leave. Many of them contact us. They can do site visits with us, or they ask us for more information which we are more than willing to provide because we see this as a highly necessary area in law enforcement.”

Crisis intervention training for law enforcement has become necessary in recent years.

“We often say law enforcement personnel are the de-facto social workers of the 21st century because people aren’t calling their psychiatrist when they go into crisis they’re calling law enforcement,” Skillern said. “It’s difficult because it’s a result of the state governments not putting the funding toward community based services, which makes it incumbent on law enforcement. We end up coming into encounters with these situations where they have deteriorated or decompensated. The majority of these are your petty type crimes, and we want to divert them away from the jails.

“It’s much more economically reasonable to provide community based mental health services and prevention based services, but instead we’re very reactive as a society. We’re creating a higher risk for the individuals because their actions leave them inside the criminal justice system which is much more expensive. We do provide the needed services but it’s not the place I would recommend anybody sending a family member to get mental health services.”

Skillern said that most officers are in it to serve the public, and this training reinforces that for them.

“A lot of people want to put law enforcement into a negative light,” she said. “Most people join law enforcement because they want to give back, they want to serve, they want to help. This is about that.”

She said a proper balance of power between an officer and an individual in the middle of a mental health crisis is vital to everyone’s well-being.

“When you’re dealing with someone who’s in a mental health crisis, the more control they feel like they have over themselves and their environment, the better chance it gives the officer to establish that rapport work with them to try to bring it to a peaceful resolution.”

The end game is to get these people the help they need, whild holding them accountable, knowing that they don’t want to harm anyone but can lose self-control at times.

“All of these things working together at the same time,”Skillern said, “to try to get people into appropriate treatment and care rather than criminalizing mental illness and so we’re looking for a way to respond more humanely, more professionally to people who often times aren’t aware of what’s happening necessarily. Now of course we still want to hold people responsible for their behavior. For many people the best way to help them is by holding them accountable.

“If they’re allowed to use their mental health as an excuse rather than an explanation that creates the wrong environment for learning and improving their life. The vast majority of people with mental illness, we don’t encounter in law enforcement or if we do we aren’t aware of it because they are managing their lives and they’re doing fine. We tend to encounter those who are more serious and decompensate or deteriorate more frequently and because of that they’re not managing their situation as well and so law enforcement gets called in. A lot of times holding them accountable, saying to them that ‘yes you have a mental illness and you still have to make the choice to take your medication.”

Some tools they give the officers include how to control their own reactions and even how to respond when they are triggered into fight or flight.

“One of the things that we talk about is when people don’t know or understand the harm they’re doing,” Skillern said. “It doesn’t do any good to get angry. The reality is that sometimes the fight or flight system is going to kick in if you get injured. Knowing what you’re up against and dealing with that, and taking the time to breathe through that and realize that you can’t take any of this personally when they’re having a mental health crisis.

“People are going to say what they’re going to say and do what they’re going to do. If you take it personally then they should be much closer to you than someone you just met. That can be a hard thing to learn.”

Skillern said this training they’re doing is only the beginning. She wants to see citizen training as well so that when a situation needs to be de-escalated they can cooperate with law enforcement to help minimize damage.

“While we’re doing the training for law enforcement,” she said, “we have a long way to go for training, not just law enforcement, but also the community about how law enforcement can respond. We have to train our community members to understand police response as much as we train police officers to learn new responses. Our community has to learn more about mental illness and what it’s like to live with, deal with or to respond to someone who’s having a mental health crisis.

“They have to understand that law enforcement are human beings and they bleed the same color as everyone else. They are out here to help. They are here to protect and to serve. They also want to go home at the end of their shift. If there are options for citizen’s police academies and things like that or even the local mental health providers to have functions where they have officers come and present and the go and present to officers. It’s important to educate both sides of the equation.”

Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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