Police, corrections officers train to help mentally ill

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — This fall, police and corrections officers in Wayne and Macomb counties will learn new tools to bring their interactions with the mentally ill to a mutually-safe conclusion. Over the next five years, corrections officers at every prison facility will receive the same training.

Crisis Intervention Team training — a 40-hour curriculum created in Memphis, Tennessee, and spread to an estimated 6,000 communities globally over the last three decades — is not new, not even to southeast Michigan, as the Oakland County Sheriff's Office took part five years ago and has trained hundreds of staffers since.

An officer trains others on how to handle a person in crisis as part of the Michigan CIT program.

But its spread to the state's largest and third-largest counties could bring a drastic shift in the way police in southeast Michigan approach emergency calls involving the mentally ill. 

"We want to be able to intervene in situations where someone might be in a crisis and not necessarily have committed a crime, but if not properly detected and addressed could lead to a crime," said Robert Dunlap, chief of jails for the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, which sent four participants to the training. "We're trying to get in front of that."

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office's primary duties are to staff a jail system averaging 1,600 inmates a day and to secure Wayne County Circuit Court. But CIT training is a worthy addition to the tool belt, Dunlap said, because deputy sheriffs also encounter the public in the streets, at county parks and when supporting other agencies.

Not only does it help officers recognize when someone's having a mental health issue, but teaches them how to handle people in crisis. 

"The more we know, the more armed we are to get that person the help and resources they need," said Christopher Cox, 49, a patrol lieutenant for the Northville Township Police Department.

"The dynamics of law enforcement have changed," added Andrew Domzalski, 38, a fellow Northville Township officer. "It's imperative we have training in mental illness and understand the help people actually need, versus taking people to jail based on strange behavior."

Interventions are a four-part process on the officer's part, Cox said: Introducing themselves, personalizing the discussion rather than dismissing the person's words, observing and acknowledging the subject's behavior and listening.

After each scenario, participants were given feedback on whether they hit all four points and what they could've done better. 

Police, Domzalski said, "tend to rush into things." But he said a slower-going approach is required if a person's behavior involves a mental episode, rather than just criminality. 

"It's not always about jail," Cox said, adding he's seen a "paradigm shift" in the field in his 22 years in law enforcement. "Putting handcuffs on someone and locking them up, if it's a major crime, you get some gratification from it. But it's very fleeting. When you're helping change someone's life, it's very rewarding."

"Early on in your career, you want to go out and catch bad guys. You want to be a big ball of fire and a hard charger," Domzalski said. "But you come to realize there's so much more to this. It's not always about jail."

During one training exercise, two officers carefully approach a man in his basement.

They talk through his day, asking questions to elicit his state of mind, and verbally nudge the man toward leaving the basement with them to "talk to some people who can help you," as one participant said. 

After some back-and-forth, the man agrees to go meet the people the officer said can help.

But CIT is not just about listening to people enduring an episode, explained Dr. Carmen McIntyre, chief medical officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections. It's also about learning to read clues from less-obvious signs, such as pill bottles.

An officer in crisis intervention training learns bleeding control on a fake leg.

Four "hinky" pill bottles were passed around the room, with participants asked to note what was wrong with them. 

"Say someone has bipolar disorder, but the dispense date was over a year ago," McIntyre said. "Clearly, this means the person's not taking their medicine regularly."

Another example: A bottle's label shows a 90-day script was filled three days earlier, but only three pills are left inside. 

Both situations offer clues that something is not quite right, that the person standing before them could be unwell.

Inside a conference room at the DoubleTree Hotel in Dearborn, a large white sheet of paper has the word "CANCER" written across the top in red. 

In one of the training exercises, participants offered words they'd use to describe people with cancer. Among them: fighter, courageous, survivor, pain, scared.

On a second sheet, the words "MENTAL ILLNESS" appear in red. Among the words participants applied to that population: Crazy, nut job, wacko, dangerous.

The harshness of the second group of words, used by people who opted in to the training, shows the need to change police perceptions of the mentally ill, said Kevin Fischer, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The alliance helped arrange guest speakers during the training. 

"That's always an eye-opener," Fischer said. "It shows how far we have to go in our perceptions."

Officers who believe the mentally ill are dangerous will respond differently than those who believe they simply need help, Fischer said. They'll respond with strength rather than understanding.

The week-long training was funded by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Just shy of two dozen participants took part from agencies including the Detroit Police Department, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, and even Ford Field security.

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said he hopes to have 449 staffers take the training — 285 officers and supervisors who work the roads and 164 corrections staff at the county jail. 

During crisis intervention training, officers learn how to deal with individuals with behavioral health conditions.

The Macomb County Jail houses an average daily population of 1,000 inmates, and he said about 300 have been identified as mentally ill. 

"Dealing with them may take a little bit more time, a little bit more reasoning," Wickersham said. "Understanding the individual you're communicating with, understanding the potential suspect, and being able to handle that situation from start to finish, with the ultimate goal of nobody being hurt, that's what this is about."

Already, 12 staffers have been trained, said spokeswoman Sgt. Renee Yax, and the roll out will continue in November. 

A Macomb County-based prison was also chosen as a pilot site as the Michigan Department of Corrections creates a crisis intervention team. 

Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the state corrections department, said 30 employees at the Macomb Correctional Facility underwent the week-long training in June.

A five-year plan aims to bring it to every state facility, meaning all 38,000 prisoners will someday be housed in facilities with CIT-trained staff.

"The training will help increase staff safety by providing employees with techniques that can reduce the potential of having to use force during a crisis situation," Gautz said in an email. "It will also help staff working with prisoners with mental illness."

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office was a local pioneer in the effort, adopting CIT training in 2015.

Sheriff Michael Bouchard said roughly 450 deputies have been trained thus far, along with dispatchers.

"We think it's critically important at a lot of levels: in dispatch, on the roads, and in our jail," Bouchard said. 


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