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APD videoconference program draws praise

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A schizophrenic man was becoming more aggressive during his encounters with police, which became more frequent after his wife left him and he upped his use of methamphetamine.

An officer well-known to the man wanted advice on how to de-escalate the next encounter. So he got on a weekly videoconference call with a team of mental health professionals and specially trained detectives in Albuquerque.

During the videoconference, the group discussed better ways for the officer to deal with the schizophrenic man. Recommendations included meeting the man when he wasn’t in crisis to see what his normal behavior is like and using “conversational hooks” to distract him when he becomes agitated.

In 2015, the Albuquerque Police Department became the first law enforcement agency in the country to start using videoconferences to conduct extended case debriefings of encounters between police and people with mental illnesses.

The videoconference project is covered in an article published this month in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. Detective Matthew Tinney, a member of APD’s Crisis Intervention Unit, is one of the authors.

Law enforcement officers around the country and in Canada have shown increased interest in what was originally a statewide project. An Albuquerque police detective, along with local health care providers, now leads a weekly videoconference with first responders from across the continent, said Nils Rosenbaum, the medical director of the APD Behavioral Health Division.

In a 17-month period, the article said, 159 people from 26 agencies in 12 states participated in the videoconferences, which are free to agencies. Sometimes officers log onto the conference from the laptop in their squad cars while on a lunch break.

The project is called CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) ECHO, which stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes. Doctors and other health care workers for years have followed similar models to brainstorm ways to treat particular conditions, such as hepatitis, but Albuquerque was the first place to use it for law enforcement, Rosenbaum said.

The officer who got recommendations on how to better communicate with the schizophrenic man was one of the case studies referenced in the article.

“Someone in Canada might say, ‘We have this guy who is yelling in front of a store and we don’t know what to do with them and he seems psychotic,’ ” Rosenbaum said, describing the regular videoconferences. “Then we all give advice, and it’s been successful.”

The project was launched in Albuquerque in 2015 with a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

It was created at a time when the police department’s interactions with people with mental illness were being closely scrutinized. A 2014 DOJ report found the police department didn’t have sufficient policies, training or supervision of officers encountering people who are mentally ill, and too often those encounters led to the use of excessive force.

That investigation launched APD into a yearslong reform project, which requires that police regularly evaluate and train officers on their interactions with mentally ill people.

“Officers feel like there’s experts and there’s police. How do you expect us to be the experts? One of the goals of this is we’re mentoring (officers) to be the experts,” Tinney said. “A lot of times officers come on (the videoconference) and they’re like, ‘I don’t know if I did it right,’ and they second-guess themselves. We’re like, ‘You’re doing it right.’

“It’s nice for them to get the encouragement and then get that extra step.”

The magazine article says the teaching method is helpful because it allows officers to join the workshops using their cellphones and laptops, which “is especially important for rural police departments and for officers who may find it difficult to step away from the field for more than a few hours at a time.”