A woman sits on the floor of the bathroom, a gun in her hand.
A man sits in his underwear eating out of a refrigerator in a house he does not own.
A person covered in rags yells obscenities at no one.
Police walk into such strange situations regularly.
They have a gun. They have body armor.
So how should they respond?
How do they keep the situation from escalating?
How do they keep themselves safe?
“The biggest thing when we first contact somebody is we ask, are they a danger to themselves or others?” said Det. Chad DeSchaaf, an 18-year veteran of the Payson Police Department.
He’s grateful the department has tackled helping officers first identify and then respond to mental health issues.
“The biggest benefit was getting some of those (symptom) indicators and helping those officers understand those specific illnesses,” he said.
The police department recently brought in the curriculum from mentalhealthfirstaid.org to train officers on how to recognize mental illnesses and respond effectively. The training comes under the shadow of an incident in which officers investigating a report of a man barricaded in a home. They found themselves confronted by a delusional man wired with explosives.
“If you don’t get to the core issue, it just keeps happening,” said DeSchaaf.
When in LaCrosse, Mich., Payson Police Chief Ron Tischer brought in the same organization to train officers.
Many of the LaCrosse officers ended up teachers themselves.
“We ended up training many others in the community,” said Tischer.
That included grocery store clerks.
“The people checking you out get more abuse,” he said, shaking his head.
The eight-hour training course provides the tools necessary to identify and handle situations before they turn into a crisis.
“We don’t need guys out for weeks with a shoulder injury from fighting with anybody,” said Tischer.
But this training wasn’t only for the officers to take into the field, it’s also for officers to use in the office.
“It’s giving them permission to say, ‘Hey, that call really screwed me up,’” said Det. Mike Varga.
Varga serves as the negotiator for the force. He works all sorts of tricky calls. The Roundup did a story about Varga negotiating with a woman who had locked herself in her house with a gun. He got her to come out safely.
As a negotiator, Varga has additional training, but he and Tischer agree the complexities of dealing with mental health and substance abuse requires lots of instruction. This program represents a great start.
DeSchaaf explained out in the field, it’s a balancing act.
“It’s about the right questions and being able to understand and get them to the right treatment,” he said.
Learning to listen while remaining vigilant can overwhelm officers — especially those right out of training.
“You just got out of the academy where they teach you everyone is going to kill you,” DeSchaaf said. “Not at every contact is someone going to hurt you.”
But complacency also poses a risk.
If they get too comfortable with the “Tell me about it” and “What’s going on,” officers can suddenly face a fatal surprise.
“You don’t want to be complacent,” said DeSchaaf.
The Mental Health First Aid training covers:
• Identifying mental illness versus substance abuse
• How to diffuse a suicidal situation or panic attack
• Crisis management for traumatic events or psychosis
• Recognizing substance abuse and symptoms of withdrawal, plus other topics.
Tischer has joined forces with Community Bridges for training and for services after an incident. A former PPD sergeant working at CBI is helping make the connection for police.
The help provided by CBI empowers officers.
“I think it helps the officers to give a resource,” said Tischer.
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