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Lockport officers schooled in de-escalation

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal - 4/27/2017

April 27--Interactions between police and people with mental health issues can be dangerous for all parties involved.

One study by The Washington Post found that roughly a quarter of all police shootings in 2015 involved people with mental health issues, while these same individuals injure and kill unknown numbers of law enforcement officers.

In an effort to avoid these potentially horrific outcomes, and get people with mental illness into treatment rather than incarceration, last week Lockport Police Department had 11 officers undergo Crisis Intervention Team training.

The training, developed by clinical psychologist Dr. Don Kamin, teaches officers how to de-escalate situations involving individuals with mental illness.

Chief Mike Niethe says Lockport police officers interact with people with mental health issues "on a daily basis." The training emphasizes the safety of officers as well as the individuals they are interacting with, he added.

"The real benefit of CIT is officer safety. A lot of officers get hurt or killed dealing with people with mental health issues."

The week-long training program, held at the Niagara Power Vista in Lewiston, utilized scenarios and role-playing to teach officers the best verbal language, body language and approaches to use in such situations.

Kamin said the program stresses setting a deliberate pace during these interactions. By slowing down, he said, officers can take the time to understand what issues the person is facing, express empathy to their problems and ultimately calm them down.

Kamin added that the vast majority of police encounters with people with mental health issues end peacefully, but that sometimes they go "horribly wrong."

"The biggest thing we emphasize is slowing down," said Kamin, who is director of the Institute for Police, Mental Health and Community Collaboration. "This is meant to add to or enhance police officers' skills. The slower you go, the faster the situation will be resolved."

The training also teaches officers communication skills, again to empathize with the individuals and de-escalate tense situations.

Another goal of CIT programs is to reduce incarceration of people with serious mental illness. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2006, 63 percent of male inmates and three-quarters of female inmates at local jails throughout the U.S. had mental health problems.

Kamin says the program does not seek to keep criminals with mental illness out of jail, it tries to get people with these issues the help that they need.

"This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said. "The CIT model is one that says everybody is better off if you can divert somebody from jail and get them into treatment."

This often involves collaborating with other agencies, such as Niagara County Mental Health Services.

"What really makes an effective CIT program is collaboration with community partners," Kamin said.

In recent years, as groups like Black Lives Matter have protested what they consider to be unjustified police shootings, the issue of law enforcement interactions with the mentally ill has gained more attention.

However, the push for CIT programs began in the late 1980s in Memphis, Tenn., after a police officer there shot a man with a serious mental illness.

Today, more than 3,000 police departments throughout the country have sent officers to CIT training.

Kamin, a former police academy trainer, helped develop the first CIT program in New York state in Rochester in 2004.

In 2014, the state senate approved funding for more upstate police departments to send officers to CIT training (New York Police Department has its own CIT program). Through the end of 2016, 13 police agencies underwent the training, including Niagara Falls Police Department.

This year, nine agencies were chosen. And as Lockport officers went through the program, they were joined by seven North Tonawanda police officers.

In future interactions with people with mental health issues, Niethe plans to deploy officers with CIT training, to hopefully avoid an unnecessary incarceration or injury. He commends Kamin for his efforts in better training first responders statewide how to deal with people with mental health issues.

"He's a brilliant guy and his heart is really in this," Niethe said.


(c)2017 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.)

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