Officers learn about mental illness

Tammy Kranz

Five percent of the U.S. population has a mental illness or symptoms of mental illness, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

This number means that officers often come across someone experiencing mental health symptoms, maybe even daily, said Mary Ann B. Hewicker, coordinator with the Adams County Crisis Intervention Team (CIT).

“Depression is, sadly, prevalent in our society,” she said.

Because of this regular occurrence, it is CIT’s goal to train law enforcement on what is mental health illness, how to identify it and how to de-escalate a situation involving someone experiencing it. More than 20 officers from Thornton, Westminster, Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Broomfield, Aurora and the University of Colorado/Denver participated in CIT’s 40-hour, weeklong training Oct. 21-25.

CIT training in Adams County is funded by Community Reach Center and the Sheriff’s Office.

“(The training) fosters compassion and empathy and helps officers respond appropriately,” said Jennifer Forker, communications coordinator with Community Reach Center. “I’ve heard from officers afterward that it’s exhausting training — both physically and emotionally — primarily because of the role playing they do, which gets pretty realistic.”

Officers in class learn the basics of mental health illness in the morning, and then participate in role-playing in the afternoon. CIT hires local actors to play out various scenarios to help officers diffuse a situation in a safe manner — such as someone barricaded in a bedroom or someone wanting to kill himself.

“CIT is necessary because over the years, evidence based research has shown us officers need one more tool in their kit — verbal skill,” Hewicker said.

Beyond the academics and role-playing, officers also do a meet-and-greet at CIT and meet clients who are suffering from mental illness. Hewicker said this socializing is beneficial for the officers and the clients.

“The clients see that the police do come out of their uniform and are real people,” she said.

CIT puts on the program a few times a year, and it is hosted by different departments throughout the county. Thornton police hosted last month’s program.

“Our crisis intervention training goal is to improve an individual’s access to the most appropriate mental health treatment and resources, and ultimately to decrease the utilization of hospital emergency departments, incarceration, and homeless programs for mental health emergencies,” said Officer Matt Barnes, spokesperson with the Thornton police. “We currently have approximately one-third of our officers CIT trained, with more anticipated to be trained in the near future.”

Students in the class either pass or fail, and they receive a certificate at the end of the week during a graduation ceremony. The next CIT training is scheduled for March 2014.

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