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Learning to Listen

Rosie Corliss, a member of The Recovery Institute, role-plays a woman with dementia who has been stopped by police for a moving violation.
Training gives officers tools to help those with mental illness

The situation playing out is bad. A man has gone to his wife’s workplace to confront her about his belief she is having an affair. He’s locked himself in a room with her and is screaming insults as her co-workers listen in terror and one calls 911. When the police arrive, they hear the man threaten his wife’s life through the locked metal door.

On most days this would be a dangerous crisis, but today it is only a simulation. The police officers are real, but their guns are plastic and the man and woman involved are actors. The role playing is part of Crisis Intervention Team training, a five-day course designed to teach officers to “de-escalate a crisis situation to a point of stabilization,” says CIT coordinator and former Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety detective Steve Ouding. The training is run by Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and law enforcement agencies in Kalamazoo County.

For the 38 officers in this session, CIT training starts not with dramatic role playing, but with three days of classroom instruction. In the classroom, officers are taught about the varieties of mental illness by a team of local mental health professionals and hear from those in recovery from mental illness about what it’s like to suffer from a behavioral health disorder. Often the loved ones of those in recovery will speak to the trainees about their unique struggles. The officers are also taught active-listening skills used by mental health counselors that can help calm those in crisis.

It’s a powerful and eye-opening few days for the officers because these are skills not often taught in police academy training, Ouding says.

The last two days of the training put officers’ newfound skills and knowledge to work through role playing of crisis situations. Community Mental Health staff members act as individuals in crisis while officers new to the training are supervised by veteran officers who’ve been through the training and have used the skills in the real world.

KDPS Sgt. Andres Wells is one of those supervisors. Wells was a trainee in the first Kalamazoo County CIT class in 2008 and says he has seen the training skills work on the streets. Wells says that, when used correctly, CIT skills can help police “avoid officer injuries and avoid civilian injuries” simultaneously.

The CIT program was introduced locally in 2008 by Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley. Kalamazoo Township Chief of Police Tim Bourgeois, who was part of the initial planning group that developed the Kalamazoo County CIT program, says Hadley had experienced the program when he worked in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was impressed with the program’s success in reducing the need for police to use physical interventions and helping to divert those with mental illness from jail into treatment programs. The Kalamazoo County program has provided training to more than 230 officers as well as two judges, a prosecutor and a few probation officers.

Ouding said CIT helps in “opening lines of communication between the subject and the officer to hopefully develop a rapport” and avoid the use of force when at all possible.

Bourgeois says he’s witnessed CIT’s impact in his own department and the other local police forces in the area.

“We don’t see this as a program,” Bourgeois says. “We see it as an integral part of how we provide service as we police the community.”

Kalamazoo County’s CIT program has become a model for other counties around the state that are developing similar programs, including Oakland and Livingston counties, says Bourgeois. Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley attended a CIT training in Kalamazoo in 2014. “Kalamazoo has a great reputation on a state level for innovation in mental health services,” Bourgeois says.

While using active-listening skills may not help officers to resolve every crisis situation, Ouding believes these skills can make a difference in many situations. He says sometimes it’s simple things that have the biggest impact. “’Please’ and ‘thank you’ go a long way,” he notes.

The officers aren’t the only ones learning. Robert Butkiewicz, supervisor of corrections programs at Community Mental Health, says the training also helps CMH staff understand the unique pressures police officers face. 

“CMH staff volunteer to act as the actors in the role plays, and I think that helps our people better understand what police officers have to deal with when they are dealing with crisis calls,” Butkiewicz says. “While some mental health people want to believe that you can always talk things out, that’s not always possible.”     

CIT is a part of Community Mental Health’s larger initiative to develop closer ties between police officers and mental health workers in Kalamazoo County, Butkiewicz says. He stresses that the goal of teaching police officers listening skills is not to turn them into social workers but to give them active-listening skills that can be “a complement to other verbal skills that officers already have. It’s just another tool in their toolkit.”

Bourgeois agrees, saying that the “building of relationships between mental health professionals and police officers” is a powerful outcome of the training.

That’s evident as the role-playing scenario plays out. Using active-listening skills they’ve learned during the training, the two officers talk for quite a while to the man who has threatened his wife’s life. One officer is able to form a personal connection with the distressed man by sharing his own struggles with depression. As he’s been instructed to do, the actor playing the man rewards the officer’s effective listening by opening the door to let the officer in. The man is taken into custody, and no one is harmed.

It’s an ideal ending to this fictional scenario, but it’s also exactly the kind of ending that the CIT program is aiming to make possible in the real world. At a time when police officers often make national news for using force, having the tools that CIT provides might just be the difference between a violent arrest and a voluntary ride to the mental health clinic.

When that happens, everyone wins — the police, civilians and the community.

Charles Thomas

Charles, a psychologist and freelance writer, has written an op-ed column for the Three Rivers Commercial-News for the past seven years. He’s currently working on a mystery novel about the mental health system.

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