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Colorado Springs law enforcement officers learn to interact with mentally ill people without force

March 14, 2017 | By Kaitlin Durbin

No one would have criticized El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Sean Peruzzi if he would have used force to restrain a ranting woman as she flung her large lunch box around what was supposed to be the setting of an employee break room.

He was trying to reason with the stranger, who said she’d stopped taking her anti-psychotic medications, but law enforcement is busy and she was getting aggressive. He could have ended the situation right then by forcefully removing her from the area, the police supervisor at Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) said.

But Peruzzi didn’t.

He stayed calm. He kept talking. He, wrongly, made promises law enforcement may not have been able to keep in the end, the supervisor critiqued, but he let her have her say to resolve the issue without arrest.

“You have to balance that safety versus letting her vent,” the supervisor said.

All was part of role-playing with paid actors to teach officers how to use words to deescalate crisis calls, rather than force.

Unless the person is a clear danger to themselves or others, and if they’re not committing a crime, officers have no reason to use force against that person, even if their actions are making others feel uncomfortable, Colorado Springs Police Sgt. Eric Frederic said.

And even if the person is threatening to kill themselves, that’s not illegal, Frederic said. All officers can do is try to calm the person enough to think rationally, and let them know what help is available, he said.

“If they’re not harming anyone else or committing any other crime, we’re not going to shoot or tase them,” Frederic said. “We’ll talk to them, but we’re not going to go in and seize them.”

CIT negotiations has become more important in Colorado Springs as recognition of mental illness grows. A large percentage of the population police encounter each day suffers from a mental illness, and even ones who don’t at times act irrational amid their distress, Frederic said.

“When people call police they’re already in a bad spot. My job is to hear them out,” Frederic said. “They vent and we allow them to tell their side (of the story), and then we work on solving the problem with them, not for them.”

Around 20 officers attending the course from CSPD or the sheriff’s office said they can now recall situations where they think CIT training could have made a difference.

Peruzzi, an 8-month deputy working in the jail, said a man once stood in front of the deputy desk screaming without end, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the other 30 inmates to intervene.

“He wasn’t getting the help he needed,” Peruzzi said. “We got him calm but it took a lot of time. Now we’ve been given the tools to help out faster.

“We can talk them down rather than going hands on,” Peruzzi said.

Eighteen-year police patrol officer Rebecca Arndt said she worries “how many families did I leave hanging” because she didn’t know about other mental health services in the area, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“For every (training) scenario I’ve been in, I can equate it to a call I’ve been on,” Arndt said. “I wish I had this 18 years ago, because I think I would have done a far better job.”

The goal is to have every officer in the area CIT trained eventually, but the week-long courses cost about $10,000 to run and leave already strained departments struggling to fill in holes for those officers away at class. Right now, the training is offered twice a year, Frederic said.

The classes cycle officers through various scenarios that increase in intensity, and every person takes a turn at talking down a person in crisis. Paid actors cry, scream, flail and make digs at officers the way real people in crisis sometimes do.

There are times when officers still have to use force to gain compliance, even after working through the “Behavioral Change Stairway” designed to help officers build trust and influence a change in behavior as fast as possible. But that’s becoming a last resort for more officers as they find words not only work but can reduce repeated problems with the same offenders, Frederic said.

Isn’t that what the job is about, he wondered aloud?

“If we can save a life, that’s really what the community should expect of us,” Frederic said.

The Gazette

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