Program trains law enforcement officers to assistance people in crisis

By David Hotle, The JOURNAL


Area officials are working with law enforcement personeell to make sure they have the tools necessary to connect someone in crisis with the help they need.

The Washington County Sheriff?s Office and Washington Police Department have been working together to give law enforcement officials two weeks of training in crisis intervention. Graduates of the course then return to the area and instuct their peers on the training.

Sheriff Jared Schneider said the instruction first began in Johnson County, with the second week of the program held in San Antonio, Texas. The department initially sent three officers, however, one of the deputies recently transferred to Washington County conservation, so two more deputies have been sent for training.

?Within our region we want to have a dozen officers trained that way,? he said. ?The city police department has two and we have two that have been through two weeks of crisis intervention training.?

Schneider says Washington?s region extends beyond the county and includes Keokuk, Louisa, Jefferson, Henry, Des Moines, Van Buren and Lee counties. Representatives from all counties have been meeting to promote the crisis intervention training. Officers trained in crisis intervention will train people from all the counties.

?Over the years, the way we approach someone who is in crisis has been different than what we would like to do in the future,? Schneider said of why the training is important. ?Crisis intervention training will give the officer a better understanding of what that person in crisis is going through. Hopefully it will give them a few other avenues.?

According to Schneider, a large part of the curriculum is laying out what services are available. The goal, he explained, is to get the people in crisis to the services they need. In the past, Schneider said, mental illness has led to people committing a crime which has led to them ending up in jail. He said this is not the correct place for those people. His hope with the program is for law enforcement to do a better job directing people to the services they need.

Washington Police officer Brian Van Willigen, an officer who has taken the two-week training course, said while incidents where officers come into contact with someone in mental crisis does not happen weekly, the department gets a number of calls of this nature.

?I think the perception is that when the police arrive and we deal with mental health issues we try to solve it by taking them to jail,? Van Willigen said. ?That is absolutely the very last option. We never want to do that. Is it unavoidable sometimes? Yes.?

He said the cardinal rule is to determine if they are an immediate danger to themselves or others.

Washington Police Chief Greg Goodman commented that one thing leading to mental illness is the use of illegal drugs, especially drugs like methamphetamine or when drugs are mixed.

Goodman also stressed the idea is not to jail someone in mental health crisis, but to see that they get treatment in a manner that benefits everyone. He said that people do have to go through a screening process which sometimes takes a while.

?What they teach and, I think, what our guys do very well in this area, is that they are very patient and are willing to take time and help,? Goodman said.

Van Willigen said a teaching principle was that officers should take the extra time, slow down, and ensure the officer is doing the right thing. He said a good thing about Washington County is the officers can take the extra time while larger departments serving a bigger area don?t always have time to do that.

Both Schneider and Goodman said the biggest challenge they face when dealing with people in crisis is the lack of mental health facilities in the state. In many cases when a person needs to go to a mental health facility, the nearest available opening is on the other side of the state. Schneider said it is common to have to transport people to Sioux City.

?Last week our sheriff?s department had to sit with someone for 72 hours at the hospital,? Van Willigan said. ?They had to get a second emergency committal for the individual because the first 48 hours had expired while they were waiting for an opening at a facility.?

He said the shortage of bed space in mental health facilities is a problem nationwide.

Goodman said dealing with mental health is a common enough occurrence that discussion is being had regarding it.