Two law enforcement officers carefully approach a tall man pacing about a sizable pile of plywood, which he sporadically taps with a metal rod. The officers keep their distance. Eventually one officer calls out: “Hey buddy—what are you up to?”
So began a four-minute role-play scenario at last month’s Apache Junction, Arizona, crisis intervention training (CIT), which was conducted by Officer Rebecca Skillern and Senior Officer Frank Webb, both of the Houston (TX) Police Department.
Crisis intervention training—which teaches first responders how to interact with people who have mental disorders—is something the Houston Police Department does particularly well. It’s one of just six departments across the country to be selected by the Council of State Governments Justice Center as a law enforcement/mental health learning site, precisely because of its ability to help other jurisdictions that are interested in starting or expanding collaboration between the criminal justice and behavioral health systems.
Skillern and Webb (who between them have more than 40 years of law enforcement experience) co-teach Houston’s 40-hour CIT course, of which the role-play session is in many ways the culmination. For three and a half days last month, first responders from Apache Junction and neighboring cities, such as Mesa—police officers, paramedics and EMTs, dispatchers, and mental health professionals—sat in a classroom and listened as Skillern and Webb explained different kinds of mental disorders, their causes and symptoms, how they might present, and how best to deal with people who have them.
During the Thursday afternoon role-play exercises, though, these local first responders were asked to use the knowledge they’d acquired earlier in the week to navigate unpredictable situations involving people with mental disorders (as played by actors). Each student in the Apache Junction training went through two of four role-play scenarios. In one, they encountered the man pacing around the plywood pile.
“Hey buddy—what are you up to?” Apache Junction Police Officer Joshua DuPont asked again. The pacing man seemed distracted, as if he didn’t hear. “Think you can put that rod down? It would make me feel a lot more comfortable.”
At this point, DuPont switched tacks. He recognized that the man wasn’t necessarily ignoring his commands or challenging his authority, but seemed to be undergoing some kind of mental health–related event. Rather than raising his voice or making demands, the officer asked more questions, trying to make some connection. When he asked the man his name he finally got a response: it was Randy.
“Hey, Randy,” DuPont asked, “why are you out here? Maybe we can help you.”
The questioning continued, and it revealed that Randy was having a psychotic episode and hearing the voice of his long-deceased brother, telling him to do harmful things. DuPont and his partner for the exercise, Mesa Police Officer Jerome Moran, learned that Randy used to take medication, but that he stopped years ago because it was making him sick to his stomach.
“You know, Randy, they have new medications now,” DuPont said, repeating something Skillern had mentioned in class the day before. “It’s possible that there’s one that won’t make you feel sick.”
Randy became more attentive. He started interacting with DuPont and Moran more readily. And eventually, he agreed to accompany them to a local mental health facility to get the help he needed.
“Think of this training as another set of skills to add to your toolkit,” Webb told the entire CIT class after the role-play sessions had ended. “These techniques truly are applicable to a variety of groups and situations, and when you encounter a situation, then you have options—you can decide which tool to use.”