Police changing tactics to help the mentally ill

Training part of effort to provide more crisis response services in Kent County

Kent County, Memphis Model, de-escalation techniques
Kent County sheriff's deputies practice de-escalation tactics aimed at helping people with mental illnesses. (September 2017)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — He didn’t think he would need it so soon.

The day after Michigan State Police Trooper Evan Mize graduated from a crisis intervention class, he found himself using the tools he had just been taught as he talked a mentally ill man down from a sign over US-131 in Grand Rapids.

“You could tell that this individual was in crisis,” Mize said.

Once the man came down, Mize said, he was “aggressive.”

“Instead of going hands on with that individual, we utilized the training and techniques we were taught in the crisis intervention training program,” he said.

That meant understanding what was happening from the man’s point of view and talking to calm him down.

“We didn’t want to have that turn into a use-of-force scenario,” Mize said. “That doesn’t help anybody.”

TENSE SITUATIONS CAN TURN DEADLY

Police across the country say a large number of the people they deal with on the street are experiencing some form of mental illness.

Confrontations with people in crisis can be deadly. Estimates put the percentage of police shootings involving mentally ill people between a quarter and half. It is also estimated that more than a hundred officers have died since 2009 in clashes with people in some sort of mental health crisis.

In January, a family member called Kent County sheriff’s deputies for help with Jonathan Sper, who had struggled with mental illness for years. After deputies arrived at the home north of Rockford, there was a fight and a deputy shot and killed Sper. The shooting was later ruled justified.

Sper’s family is “still intensely grieving over the unnecessary shooting death,” his father David Sper wrote in an email to Target 8 investigators.

David Sper said the family set up a memorial fund to help pay for de-escalation training for police officers, which he says is “long overdue in our community.”

THE MEMPHIS MODEL

A similar scenario in Memphis, Tennessee, 30 years ago stirred police and the community to look for new ways for officers to respond to people suffering mental health crises. Since then, the Memphis Model has been slowly spreading across the country.

Kent County is now one of a few areas in Michigan building on existing police training with Memphis Model de-escalation techniques. So far, two weeklong classes have trained 60 of the some 900 officers in Kent County.

The man leading the training is Rafael Diaz, a lieutenant with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, where de-escalation methods have been used for a decade. He formed a group that is teaching the techniques to police in other communities.

“This training isn’t going to stop or prevent every violent encounter,” Diaz said. “We just hope it reduces the probability that it’s going to occur.”

CHANGING BEHAVIORS TO CHANGE OUTCOMES

The program recognizes that traditional take-charge police tactics for dealing with common criminals don’t always work very well when dealing with someone having a mental health crisis. Diaz said the tactics officers use to get control of criminals work because the bad guys are thinking rationally.

That’s not the case when someone is in crisis.

“Their ability to reason is down,” Diaz said. “These people are having difficulty processing information, knowing where they’re at. Their ability to perceive reality is impaired.”

From such a person’s perspective, he explained, “everything is dangerous, everything is terrifying, so by changing some of our approaches, some of our mannerisms, some of our speech patterns,” police officers may be able to get the person to calm down and be less fearful.

“And less fearful means our probability of being able to communicate goes up and our probability for violence goes down,” Diaz said.

The weeklong courses bring in mental health experts to teach officers about different kinds of mental illness and what they look like on the street. Officers find out what behaviors are real threats and what are just the illness talking.

Officers then go through a series of scenarios to practice what they’ve learned with health workers and other cops playing people showing various mental health crises.

>>App users: Watch some of the training

“This training opens our eyes toward mental illness and just gives us more tools for our toolbox,” Trooper Mize said.

The case of the man on the freeway sign ended peacefully with the man headed to the hospital for treatment. Mize said that “could have ended a different way” if he hadn’t had the crisis intervention training.

A SYSTEMWIDE APPROACH

The seed for bringing the training to Kent County was planted a couple of years ago after two East Grand Rapids officers went to Kalamazoo for the course and came back with glowing reviews. East Grand Rapids Police Chief Mark Herald said local chiefs and the county sheriff started talking among themselves and then started calling people in the other big institutions involved in to the mental health system.

“Once we got together in the same room, it just kind of took off and everybody realized we had to do something,” Herald said.

The plan in Kent County aims to do more than train officers.

“In Kent County, we’re working to fundamentally redefine and equip our community to deal with mental health issues,” said Scott Gilman, who heads the county mental health agency, Network180.

For the first time, the whole system seems to be trying to smooth over the gaps in caring for people with mental health issues, aiming to keep them in treatment and out of crisis. One of those gaps is the lack of a place for police to take people who in crisis. The remedy is creating a 24-hour locked crisis center where they can get immediate care.

“This is about keeping people out of jail who don’t really need to be there and need health care,” Gilman said. “It’s a huge change.”

The Kent County plan has drawn financial aid from the state government to help create a mental health care model for the rest of the state.

But Gilman says the $1.2 million state grant is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s necessary to make all the needed changes, and $8 million is still needed just to create the crisis center.

THE MAIN OBSTACLE: MONEY

The plan is to eventually get officers who have undergone crisis intervention training to become instructors.

Still, there is a cost. Taking officers away from their duties for a week of training “means we have to pay overtime to somebody to fill that slot and it becomes very problematic,” Chief Herald said.

That could be an obstacle, especially for smaller departments, in implementing the training across the state.

“(It) is very urgent that we come up with a model so that all law enforcement agencies in Michigan can get crisis intervention training,” state Rep. David LaGrand, who is on a mental health task force, said.

LaGrand, a Democrat from Grand Rapids, said the only stumbling block is money.

“The political will to fund this is always going to be a problem and that’s a problem with everything in our state right now,” he said.

But LaGrand said he is an optimist and believes that the chances of getting all officers in the state through crisis intervention training is “well north of 50 percent. I’d say north of 75 percent.”