Saving lives: Police partnering with community for new program to address mental health crises

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VANCOUVER, WA – The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) announced that it is partnering with Sea Mar- Community Services Northwest (CSNW) to start a pilot program aimed at improving access to mental health services and treatment options. 

According to a press release from VPD, Vancouver was awarded a total of nearly $315k by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) as part of a $2 million program that was initially established by the Washington State Legislature. Only nine grants were awarded to communities statewide.

The city will share grant funding with Sea Mar, a federally qualified health center, to add three full-time mental health responder positions to assist VPD officers in the field. According to the police department, the mental health responders will be utilized in an “on-call” capacity during peak police response hours.

The press release stated that the funds were initially received in September 2019 and were to share with Clark County as well as Sea Mar.

Within a month, those funds and agreements were approved by the Vancouver City Council. Within the following three months, they were approved by Clark County Council and Sea Mar. 

After months of planning and project development, field implementation was scheduled for March 2020. However, it was inevitably delayed due to COVID-19.

According to VPD spokeswoman Kim Kapp, during that time, no grant funds were spent and the WASPC reached out to VPD in June 2020 advising them that the current level of funding would continue to be available through June 30, 2021.

In addition to having three full-time mental health responders, VPD officers will also work with Sea Mar mental health professionals to enhance proactive outreach, safety planning, and building positive relationships with the community.

By receiving funding from this grant, the police department is able to add capacity to the current crisis model, reduce response times for mental health field evaluations, and promote treatment, diversion, and options to reduce incarceration.

When safe and appropriate, officers will call Sea Mar mental health professionals to respond to their locations and provide a clinical evaluation as well as having the ability to hand off responsibility for treatment and follow-up care.

According to the press release:

“The intent of the ‘Enhanced Mobile Crisis Response Team’ is to provide citizens experiencing a mental health crisis with the opportunity to receive care where they are. It is also designed to divert some citizens from incarceration who have committed low level crimes while suffering from a mental health crisis.”

Erica Hunt, Psy. D. Behavioral Health Program Manager at Sea Mar said in a statement:

“We are excited to grow in our partnership with VPD to increase opportunities for individuals in crisis to receive rapid crisis response services to the field in conjunction with officers. This funding allows us to enhance our existing adult mobile crisis program to aid in this effort.”

She added:

“We will be responding to the community with a team of trained mental health professionals and peer support counselors to offer crisis intervention, safety planning, and resources.” 

The department added that the pilot program will build on the success of protocols by further improving collaboration with the court system and prosecutors, with crisis responders, social service providers, and advocacy organizations.

The statement said:

“Our community has a well-established mental health response network, which is highly successful in diverting individuals from the hospital or jail. Vancouver currently requires 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training for all police officers and VPD continues to invest in police training and de-escalation strategies for its personnel.”

It added:

“This grant will enhance access to mental health services through June 30, 2021, when funding ends. While funding is limited for this competitive grant program, Vancouver plans to re-apply for grant funding in spring 2021 to continue to enhance the project.”

Lisa Toth, a Vancouver attorney who is involved in Clark County’s Mental Health Court and advocates for her clients’ access to treatment, said that many times law enforcement are the first responders to people in crisis, which means it is imperative to educate officers on how to best approach these situations and ultimately diffuse them.

She said that any crisis can go wrong in a matter of seconds.

She added:

“If a mental health professional is able to assist, educate, and guide law enforcement on how best to approach situations and circumvent an unnecessary trip to the jail, then I believe it’s valuable and one of many positive steps in a very long process.”

VPD Police Chief James McElvain said in a statement:

“We are fortunate for this opportunity to partner with WASPC and Sea Mar to bring this pilot program and new resources to Vancouver and ensure mental health professionals are used early on so that our officers can focus on more appropriate policing matters.”

According to Kapp, once the mental health responders have been hired and the protocols are put into place, the pilot program will begin. Sea Mar is in the process of hiring and training new mental health co-responder positions with the goal of beginning field work with VPD in October 2020.

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July 14, 2020: Training and deescalation: What every officer needs to know (without the media spin)

Virtual scenario training has been around law enforcement for many years. One of the first scenario training simulators was the Firearms Training Simulator. The machine was similar to an arcade game; officers would stand in front of the screen with a fake gun and were presented with scenarios in which officers had to decide, quickly, on whether to use lethal force or not.

Many, if not all, of these scenarios did not provide a way to deescalate: it was either commands or fire the gun.

A common name for this type of training was “shoot/don’t shoot.”

While these simulators were good at the time, and while sometimes a shoot/don’t shoot is good training, technology has advanced over time and officers found themselves with more options for training.

Many agencies went to paint ball guns and role players, or simunitions training. This, of course, produced better responses to training because people were yelling, screaming, and engaging during the course of the scenario, thus creating high physical and psychological fidelity. Also, officers knew by getting shot with a paint ball or firing, how they were more likely to act in those types of situations.

However, this type of training had its own issues, like ensuring there were no live weapons in the training area to bulky safety equipment that had many hiccups. These types of issues created a problem with the quality of training.

In police training, there is an old saying: train like you fight.

In other words, the training has to be real enough in order to create realistic responses, so that when the officer is under stress, they can fully rely on their training to take over and not have to “think” so much on small details.

Rather, an officer “remembers” what to do in certain stressful situations, as it has become a training habit.

In addition, there has been an increasing push on law enforcement to work harder at deescalating situations with little to no force, when able.

Agencies recognize the importance in continuing to train officers on a routine basis in areas such as use of force, defensive tactics, emergency vehicle operations, first aid/CPR, and legal updates. These trainings are often required yearly.

However, there has never been continued training on deescalating situations, other than maybe a PowerPoint presentation or lecture.

One company, VirTra, has found a way to bring better annual training to officers in this very important topic with it’s simulation training.

Deescalating -the ability to calm a volatile situation- is not as easy as it sounds, nor as easy as the media leads people to believe. 

In heated situations, arguments, or armed encounters, many times the subjects are irrational. Therefore, talking to them in a normal manner may not work. 

However, developing some type of connection and dialogue is key if there will be any success in calming a situation before it gets worse.  For me, I find it helps to introduce myself informally right off the bat  informally. For instance, I do not lead off with “I am Officer so and so,” but rather, I say: “Hi, I’m Chris.”

It’s important to get the person to realize that they are speaking to another human being, not just an officer.  Once a dialogue is started, gain a connection, find out what the person may be thinking or feeling.  I know it sounds a little touchy-feely coming from a cop, but, in these situations, it sometimes helps. If the person I am talking to is wild about pink bunnies, well, I am too for this conversation.

Officers have to engage in active listening during encounters such as this.  I have seen a subject  close to engaging with an officer suddenly notice them talking on the radio or looking away, which ended the successful outcome of the situation. 

Being able to calm someone, make them feel important, and not be rash to jump to a conclusion helps a lot of the time. 

These types of situations should be trained more often in order to allow for proficiency.  Training can be done through scenarios were mental health professionals or those who have been adequately trained in deescalation can teach the programs. 

In these situations, officers would gather for their annual training and enact responding to a call for service involving someone in mental crisis.  The actor would have a series of responses planned out for any response the officer does.  If the officer does well, the situation ends without violence.  If the officer does not do well, the situation can escalate.

It also helps to incorporate different training programs like VirTra has can assist officers in learning different styles and hone their craft in deescalating situations. 

VirTra is a private company who has developed a virtual training simulator in which to run anyone through different situations that range anywhere from a verbal disturbance to an active shooter at a school. 

One benefit to this type of program is sound: Officers are in a virtual setting, with people screaming, yelling, crying, alarms going off, etc.  Based upon how the officer reacts to what is presented, the training officer can select a range of responses that are built into the scenario. 

What is even better is that there’s a laser built into the firearms that are used for the program that are able to show the officer’s shot placement while under stress.

After the Parkland school shooting, I had the opportunity to watch school administrators go through active shooting event simulations.  The mindset for providing this to them was to give them an idea of what a real situation would be like, God forbid, it happens in our area. 

Everyone that went through the training commented on how realistic it was and how they never expected it to happen as quickly.  Two of the administrators were brought to tears.

While it’s impossible to determine all possible outcomes a person will have when confronted with the possibility of being arrested or some other negative contact with law enforcement, this type of training certainly offers many potential reactions.

This is exceptionally good training, and a great tool for officers. Requiring annual de-escalation training would be preferred in order to keep officer’s skills up. Remember, these are perishable skills, and we are talking about officers making decisions under stress.

 

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