Hundreds of Area Police Officers Trained to Handle Increase in Mental Health Calls

Patrolling the streets of Ward 5 in D.C., Officer Robert Scippio might look like any other police officer, but he's been specially trained to respond to a certain type of call experts tell the News4 I-Team is on the rise in our area. He’s a crisis intervention officer, one of more than 650 Metropolitan Police Department officers who have gone through 40 hours of training to better understand mental illness and how to safely respond to those dealing with it.

"Mental illness is here, and people need to be aware," Scippio said.

On the day the I-Team rode along with him, he spotted a woman he often sees on the streets. “She's been dealing with mental health for a long time," he said. The training gave him skills to recognize she might be in trouble, he said. "I know she's not in compliance with taking her medication. I already know that," Scippio said.

He was one of the first to get the training, which started in 2009.

News4 I-Team cameras were recently allowed inside the week-long session.

“There's two reasons for the program, safety and non-violent diversion," David Shapiro of the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, which helps lead the training, told the classroom packed with MPD officers. By the end of the week, the goal is for officers to have the tools they need to deescalate and resolve situations involving people with mental health issues and offer them resources for help.

During the week officers listen to experts, do site visits and also take part in various role-playing scenarios inside MPD’s tactical village, which is used for all different kinds of training. The $6 million facility looks like a small town complete with a school house, apartments, a bank, offices and a store. To get an inside look at the training site click here.

The Metropolitan Police Department gave the News4 I-Team a tour of its tactical facility, which is used for training.

MPD officers who attend CIO training do so on their own because it’s voluntary, but the department did set a goal to get 15 percent of the force trained. A spokesperson said the department has passed that mark. "We're glad that everybody who comes in here wants to be here,” MPD Inspector Mario Patrizio said. “We want to keep it that way."

Similar Crisis Intervention Team training is also voluntary in surrounding areas. Montgomery County offers the training four times a year. So far, more than 650 officers have volunteered for it.

Doreen Gentzler looks at how Montgomery County police officers are trained to handle calls involving mental illness.

Approximately 400 Fairfax County police officers are CIT trained. A spokesperson told the News4 I-Team, while the training is voluntary, the department does “try to allocate a set number of spots for each station to fill the courses so there are trained officers in various districts and entities in the county.”

The CIT training is mandatory for new recruits with Prince George’s County police. More than 400 have been trained since 2010. A police spokesperson told the News4 I-Team all officers have received a CIT refresher as part of their yearly in-service training.

Officer Stephen Bigelow said the training he received opened his eyes to those he encountered on the job who were suffering and made him an overall better police officer. "It started changing our minds about the stigma of mental illness,” said Bigelow. "If you talk to them in a calm manner, it calms the situation down and it's less likely that you're going to get involved in a physical altercation with those folks. And it worked." He’s now an instructor at MPD’s police academy where he helps other officers learn techniques for diffusing situations instead of immediately resorting to force.

According to D.C.'s Department of Behavioral Health, a high percentage of the calls for CIO-trained officers are for suicide threats or attempts. And officers, like Sgt. Brett Parson, add they often encounter people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in the D.C. area. "When you take a step back and understand where it's coming from and that this person really deep down inside doesn't mean me any harm ... then you start to understand the levels of force you may need to use," Parson said.

In Ward 5, the I-Team watched as Officer Scippio approached the woman he sees regularly on the streets and thinks might be in trouble. She didn’t want to talk this day, but Scippio said he’ll be there if she ever does need him.

“You want to leave a person better off than when you encountered them,” he said. “Even if you can't really give them what they want, at least give them some sort of hope."

Most new police recruits in our area do get some training for handling mental health calls, but not as in-depth as the Crisis Intervention training. Anyone who calls 911 can specifically ask for one of the CIO-trained officers.

Crisis intervention officer training stats from D.C. Department of Behavioral Health:

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