Police tackle interactions, relationships with mentally ill
Maryland Gazette - 3/6/2017
As a weeklong, 40-hour class about mental illness wraps up, law enforcement officials from dispatchers to patrol officers reflected on how the lessons mirrored their experiences.
Some talked about how their training in handling people with dementia - an intensive hands-on course where officers had their senses distorted to simulate symptoms - helped them better understand sufferers' inabilities to handle common tasks.
Others spoke about how the training reinforced the difficulties they have in handling family members with mental illness.
Led by the county's Mental Health Agency'sCrisis Response Team, the training is part of a weeklong class to help officers understand the intricacies of mental illness and how to better deescalate situations.
Crisis Response Team Director Jen Corbin said the course focuses on hands-on education.
"We're not teaching. We're kind of facilitating," Corbin said. "The 40-hour course is not about us standing up and lecturing."
Students simulate mental illness by wearing headphones that obscure their hearing and experience the foot pain associated with poor circulation and neuropathy by placing painful items in their shoes.
In addition, the class tackles subjects that can also affect officers' mental health. A recent class heard testimony from a Sept. 11, 2011, first responder and the effect the tragedy had on his life moving forward.
Corbin told the graduating class - a combination of Anne Arundel and Annapolis law enforcement officials - that the course can serve two purposes.
One is "not having a negative attitude pre-dispatch" when handling calls involving those with mental illnesses. The other is "we've got to switch our culture."
In September 2015, county police responded to a Linthicum apartment building and encountered 38-year-old Brian Jerome Preissler. Neighbors told police Preissler was acting increasingly erratic after his wife left him and complained he burned a lawn chair on a grill, according to police reports.
The county officer left - only to return a few hours later to find the building in flames. Officers witnessed Preissler making "incoherent, inconsistent excited utterances," the report states.
Preissler was taken to Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie for an emergency evaluation and later charged. In July 2016, he was found not criminally responsible due to a mental disorder after pleading guilty to first-degree arson. He was transferred to a mental health facility.
The fire caused about $500,000 in damage. Nine residents, who were home at the time, were able to escape unscathed. However, two firefighters received minor injuries fighting the blaze. In all, about 20 people were displaced.
Three years ago, Anne Arundel police faced considerable criticism after an officer used a Taser on a mentally ill man in Edgewater.
At the time, many in the community wondered how police could use a Taser on William Lawson Jr., so well-known in the community he'd garnered the nickname of the "mayor of Edgewater." He had run after an officer ordered him to stop, but his caretaker said they hadn't listened to Lawson.
Anne Arundel Police Chief Timothy Altomare admits there is a need to change elements of traditional police culture. The incident happened prior to Altomare's arrival as chief, but he said the training is meant to supplement more standard officer training.
"How hard is it to show up at (the) crisis moment? Because when the psychotic breakdown happens, you can't be proactive and you can't be officer-friendly," Altomare said. "When there (are) life safety things that need to be taken care of, the more traditional officer role has to come out because we have to protect life."
He added, "The magic here is maybe we get better at stopping that final boil over from happening."
Alfred Thomas, an 18-year veteran of the Annapolis Police Department, said the training should be mandatory for all officers.
He recalled a situation with a minor he had while he was still relatively new to the force. Thomas said the child was "acting out," so he handled it like a normal call for a disturbance and thought nothing of the possibility that he could have handled it differently.
"I later found out he was suffering from ADHD," he said, speaking of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He said he missed an opportunity to provide the child with the proper resources for care, something that was outlined in the class.
The class also features role play where officers act out situations they might encounter in the field alongside testimonials of police who themselves fight with depression.
"You have to be able to look at yourself and know what your own pieces are about you that might affect the way you interact with someone else," instructor Steve Plumber said.
A training specialist with the Crisis Response Team, Plumber stressed a key goal was to bring officers into a place of empathy.
"One in four adults have a mental illness and there are six people affected by every suicide," Plumber said. "So it's crazy to think that everybody in this room was not affected in some way by mental health or suicide or anything that we're talking about."
Credit: By Phil Davis - firstname.lastname@example.org