Handling Someone in Crisis: Training Gives Prince William Co. Officers New Understanding - NBC4 Washington

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Handling Someone in Crisis: Training Gives Prince William Co. Officers New Understanding

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    News4's Julie Carey got a rare inside look at the intense training Prince William County police officers are going through to better deal with people suffering mental health crises. (Published Friday, Dec. 4, 2015)

    Two dozen officers and deputies in Prince William County are heading back to the streets with a new understanding of how to deal with mentally ill people.

    These officers are graduates of the county's Crisis Intervention Team program, a week of intense coaching in how to handle some of the most emotionally charged situations police may encounter on the street.

    Officers in the class test out skills designed to calm emotionally charged situations and gather information that might help a person in crisis or with a mental health issue.

    In one role-playing exercise during the training, a distraught woman reveals that her roommate is involved with her boyfriend.

    "Hey Danielle, I see you got some cuts on your wrist? Tell me about those," says the officer.

    "Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's what I do to cope," says the woman playing Danielle.

    "What you do to cope? How long have you been doing that?" the officer asks.

    "I would say a couple of years." Danielle sniffs, pretending to cry.

    "Do you ever talk to anybody about that?" the officer responds.

    In another scenario, police role-play a call to a hotel, where they're asked to check out a guy who been crashing the complimentary breakfast every day.

    Instead of rousting him out, they ask questions and actively listen to his answers. They discover he suffers from mental illness and is homeless. And they make sure he has a counselor and get him to agree to go to a shelter.

    Officers who have completed the training say they have learned patience to deal with people in crisis.

    Prince William County officer Matt Haselton, now a CIT trainer, said he used to use a blunt philosophy to police encounters: "I ask you, I tell you, I make you."

    "But after CIT you start to find out there is a different way," he said.

    The officers also drill with videos, listening and asking questions so they can identify the feelings behind someone's story.

    "You kind of slow down a little bit, instead of just going, 'I need the facts,'" said Officer Eric Beard, already a trained negotiator.

    "You basically talk to people as people, instead of just demanding answers," Beard said.

    Across Prince William County, more than 100 officers and deputies have been through the training, 88 of them in the county police department.

    And the county has opened a new alternative to prison for people who need help, not incarceration. A new assessment center has just opened at Prince William County's Community Service Board building, staffed by a CIT-trained officer.

    Therapists will be there to assess mental health needs, then determine the best place to get help for the person in crisis.

    "Having someplace like this where an officer can actually transfer custody -- we're hoping will divert [people] from jail," said Ann Brown of the community services board.