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Officers prepare for mental illness in the field

By Dannika Lewis, dlewis@wisctv.com
Published On: May 08 2014 09:04:29 AM CDT
Updated On: May 08 2014 02:20:50 PM CDT

Police are learning new strategies for handling run-ins with potentially violent mental health patients.

MADISON, Wis. -

Last week was a strong reminder of how closely intertwined crime scenes and mental health can be. Within three days, there were three fatal officer-involved shootings. Two of those happened in Dane County. All of them prompted law enforcement to once again reflect on the importance of training their forces for encounters with the mentally ill.

What we often see are the most extreme cases, but a number of calls for police help come from places you wouldn’t expect there to be police interaction.

Janelle Zacho heads up the dementia units at Columbia County Health Care Center. She said officers, like others, often want to respond to security situations involving patients with haste in any situation, but she hopes officers understands that her calls are different.

“They want to take care of this pretty quick, but sometimes the best is to take it really really slow,” Zacho said.

That said, Zacho has had her fair share calls to the authorities for people who turned violent.

“Sometimes, unfortunately, they do have to use some degree of force or strength to protect that person and other people,” Zacho said.

Zacho watched as an 81-year-old man with dementia overpowered three officers, throwing one over a table and to the ground.

Zacho begged other officers to let her walk to the squad car with patients instead of having them put in cuffs in their already-confused state.

“Absolutely. I hated to do it. Because it really, they came about it from a criminal perspective,” Zacho said.

That was then, she said. Most law enforcement visiting the health care center now understand better how to deal with her patients, playing into what they believe to be their reality, and not treating them like criminals with intent.

“That behavior is not them, it's the disease, and we know that,” Zacho said.

Last week Madison College hosted the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The national organization brought trainers from across the country to teach first responders about dealing with Alzheimer’s patients.

Brian Landers is Madison College’s Director of Training for the Protective Services Unit, and the police academy program graduates more than 70 future officers a year. He said how police present themselves and act when confronted with crisis has changed significantly.

“Now, it's not just a new strategy, it's an expectation, an expectation that our citizens have. It's an expectation that the government leaders have when they allocate budgets,” Landers explained. “What are you doing locally to try and serve our community and recognize the people in our community that could be in crisis or have issues?”

Landers explained mental health isn’t an elective for the police academy students he graduates. Instead, the concept and strategies are integrated into the basic curriculum. That means covering everything from tracking down a child with autism to talking down a suicidal person to deciding when to pull the trigger on a mentally ill suspect.

“It's usually about a third of a second, that's the amount of time, .38 seconds, for an officer to make a critical decision on use of force that could be a life or death decision,” Landers said.

Landers said force is no longer the focus of his training. He hones in on communication, risk assessment, and quick diagnosis of a person and situation.

“I've always said your best weapon is your mind and your mouth,” Landers said.

Landers said there’s no magic weapon he can hand over to his students to solve every problem in the field, but the modern-day officer needs to not be a militant-type person in uniform.

“The vast majority of law enforcement work is not glamorous,” Landers said. “It's really being a caretaker with the community.”

Landers said some Wisconsin forces still resist new training tactics, and in order for the training to be successful, he said it must apply to everyone on the force.

“We can never train them for every single scenario. They would be in the police academy for the rest of their lives and never get out in the street,” Landers explained. “But we have to give them what we know about the primary threats or primary characteristics of people and focus on that type of training so they're better prepared when they see something, they have an understanding and a recognition, and then their force options and decisions are more informed.”

Landers said he trains most by the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. He said empathy follows that kind of philosophy.

“They belong to somebody, and if they don't, they now belong to you,” Landers said.

This issue got personal for Landers and his wife in February. That’s when they adopted their six-year-old daughter, Emma. Emma was neglected when she was younger, and as a result, lives with cognitive and physical delays.

Now, Landers has to think about what would happen if Emma ever had a run-in with the law, and he brings that lesson to class with him.

“Realize that every single call you go to is somebody's Emma. Keep that in the back of your mind,” Landers said. “So be a human being. That badge is not a sign of protection, but it's a sign of honor and respect, and you might be the only person who gives that to this person.”

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