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Law enforcement officers from seven counties get training in mental health crisis intervention

Dale Bothun, an actor with the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team, portrays a mentally ill man who's doused himself with gasoline during a role-playing scenario Friday. Officers from seven area counties participated in the training this week in Willmar. Tribune Photo by Carolyn Lange

Dressed in an overcoat and hat drenched in gasoline, "Tom" sits on a pile of newspapers making flowers for his deceased mother, whom he misses dearly and to whom he is talking in a rambling mumble. "I know, mom. I know. I'm coming."

There are cigarette lighters beside him.

"I'm going home to my mom," Tom tells a police officer who has been called to the scene.

"Stop, Tom. Put down the lighter, Tom," said Aaron Berry, from the Hutchinson Police Department, as Tom gets increasingly agitated.

"Stop, Tom. Stand up and come to me, Tom."

"OK, time-out," shouts Mike Schrader, a coach with the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team, which conducted a 40-hour training session this week in Willmar for area law enforcement agencies. The training was made possible by a grant obtained by the Southwest Adult Mental Health Consortium.

"What's working here? Any suggestions?" asked Schrader.

As the actor playing Tom is caught in a freeze-frame, Berry and a half-dozen other law-enforcement officers try to figure out a new strategy, new words or new tactics to resolve the scenario.

If the officer says the wrong thing, the actor delivers a "sting" with more volatile or agitated actions. If the officer shows proper empathy or gives reasonable directions, the actor gives "rewards" by calming down and being compliant.

In the end Berry was successful, a deadly ending was avoided and "Tom" was given the mental health help he needed.

From Tuesday through Friday, 29 law enforcement officers from Kandiyohi, McLeod, Meeker, Renville, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine and Redwood counties have been in Willmar learning techniques for de-escalating crisis situations involving people with mental illness.

They had to talk a woman off a hotel balcony, persuade an angry truck driver on meth not to drive the rig and calm down a man who sought "suicide by cop" rather than face financial, medical and family troubles.

The goal of the training is to teach law enforcement officers to "safely and compassionately" handle a person with a mental health crisis while avoiding injury or death to themselves or consumers of mental health services, according to the organization's Web site www.mncit.org.

Because an increasing number of people with mental illness are on the streets or in county jails, law enforcement officers are on the front lines and the first person to have contact with a person in crisis, said Donna Fox, director of training and development for the organization.

Traditional law enforcement education does not include training on how to deal with mental health crisis situations, she said. As a result, physical confrontations between law enforcement and people experiencing a mental health crisis are too common.

"There's a huge need for this training," Schrader said.

Some of the negotiating tools include keeping a calm tone of voice, having patience and empathy and being able to "understand what people are going through," he said. While those lessons in basic communication may seem easy, Schrader said it's also easy to "say the wrong thing" to someone in crisis which could trigger a response that leads to deadly force.

The role playing is "as close to taking real calls without being on a real crisis," Schrader said.

"It's emotionally and physically draining," said Aaron Slagter, a young officer from the city of Renville Police Department, who struggled to resolve a crisis scenario.

For Al Liepold, a veteran patrol sergeant with the McLeod County Sheriff's Department, the words came a little easier as he worked his scenario. "Showing an ounce of caring goes a long way," said Liepold, who's learned some lessons through experience.

The exercise was also taxing for the actors.

Kari Maffei has been working with the program for three years playing a variety of troubling roles for the officers to handle.

"I've been through a rape. I've been through a car accident, and I've wanted to kill myself twice. Yeha, I've been through a lot today," Maffei said. "It's like a workout and I feel like I did something worthwhile."

In the end, the training will help law enforcement, mental health consumers and mental health professionals, Fox said. It will keep consumers out of jail, reduce injuries and death and "raise awareness" for the general public about the challenges, and successes, of helping people experiencing a mental health crisis, she said.

The consortium is also sponsoring similar training sessions Feb. 9 in Marshall and March 9 in Worthington.

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Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750
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