Pasco Sheriff’s Office hone crisis intervention skills

Pasco County Sheriff’s Office deputies recently spent a week learning how to use the power of words to de-escalate situations that have the potential to turn dangerous.

In one role-play scenario, Pasco Sheriff’s Office deputies Breanna Chandler and Lindsay Steward intermediated between a mother and her teenage daughter with oppositional defiant disorder.

In another scene, deputies Ricardo Ortiz and Jose Vazquez-Trujillo sought to calm a schizophrenic man who had paranoia and homicidal ideations about a next-door neighbor.

In one mock scenario, Pasco Sheriff’s Office deputies Ricardo Ortiz, left, and Jose Vazquez-Trujillo are tasked with calming a schizophrenic man who had paranoia and homicidal ideations about a next-door neighbor. The practice exercise was part of the agency’s crisis intervention training to better equip law enforcement officers with verbal de-escalation techniques in dealing with citizens in various mental states. Crisis intervention instructor Tom Kelley plays the role of the man with schizophrenia disorder. (Kevin Weiss)

Other mock scenarios had deputies and corrections officers encounter inmates or juveniles with suicidal thoughts, or, deal with someone with severe substance abuse. There was even a situation that exposed deputies to someone with low-functioning autism.

There weren’t any takedowns, hands-on combat nor use of nonlethal force.

Rather, this type of police training simply required conversations to resolve problems.

For each participating law enforcement officer, the objective was to have a better understanding of mental health in crisis and to learn how to better respond to de-escalate a situation during a call for service.

It was all part of the agency’s recent Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training program at Pasco Safety Town in Shady Hills.

The weeklong, 40-hour CIT program is a collaborative effort between the sheriff’s office and many local behavioral and mental health community partners. It is held four times per year within the agency.

Throughout the week, deputies received instruction on various subjects, such as signs and symptoms of mental illness, co-occurring disorders, addiction, dementia, trauma informed care, and juvenile and veteran response.

De-escalation techniques centered on maintaining positive body language and tone of voice, along with active listening skills to appropriately reflect upon a subject’s feelings.

Deputies then put those techniques to the test with role-play scenes, which were written out by a licensed mental health counselor in collaboration with a law enforcement officer. Volunteer actors played the various roles of persons in crisis.

The mock exercises required deputies to determine whether or not to detain a subject for an involuntary mental health evaluation, otherwise known as the Baker Act; provide a referral to various behavioral health services and resources; or, simply offer someone a shoulder to lean on and to listen to a subject’s personal problems.

One of the instructors and role play actors was Tom Kelley, a former law enforcement and military officer, who operates a consulting firm specializing in crisis intervention and crime prevention.

In traditional law enforcement academies, trainees are taught to enter situations with authority in voice and action.

In the crisis intervention program, however, Kelley instructed deputies to find a softer, more inviting tone when dealing with people undergoing a mental crisis.

Kelley put it this way to a classroom full of deputies: “Let them know that you’re there and you care. At that moment, they need to feel like you’re the most caring person in the world, because they are at their worst.”

In this role-play exercise, Pasco Sheriff’s Office deputies Breanna Chandler, left, and Lindsay Steward try to calm a with teenage daughter with oppositional defiant disorder. It was part of the law enforcement agency’s recent weeklong Crisis Intervention Team training program. Volunteer Brittany Graniero, a licensed mental health counselor, plays the role of the defiant teen.

Pasco Sheriff’s Lt. Toni Roach has been the agency’s CIT coordinator since 2016.

She said the objective of crisis intervention is twofold.

First, it’s to reduce potential injury to citizens and responding deputies.

Second, it’s utilized to help divert people with “potentially criminal behavior or disruptive behavior” away from the jail system and into a mental health system where they can get proper diagnosis and treatment.

Roach explained: “The idea is to use your words and de-escalate rather than quickly resorting to force when the people you’re interacting with become nervous or scared, and are apprehensive to do what the deputy asks them to do.”

The training is vital for law enforcement personnel, the lieutenant said.

Roach put it this way: “We want to make sure that we can serve our public and provide them with good resources, and then hopefully we interact with them in a positive manner, so that, especially people with mental illness who have a fear of law enforcement, we can reduce that level of fear and have a good relationship with our community.”

Twenty-nine sheriff’s office personnel graduated from the recent spring class.

Upon graduation, each deputy received a pin for their uniform indicating they’ve had advanced training in crisis intervention.

Roach said about 50 percent of patrol deputies are CIT certified, also noting the public is able to request a CIT trained officer in a call for service. The agency is striving to have all of its deputies CIT certified in the future, she said.

In addition to the sheriff’s office, organizations that assisted in facilitating the CIT program were the National Alliance on Mental Illness, HCA Florida Hospitals, Rogers Behavioral Health, North Tampa Behavioral Health, BayCare Health System, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, and Veteran’s Affairs clinics.

Published May 08, 2019

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