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Police learn to deal with mentally ill residents

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque police officers looked through a window and saw the man sitting inside the small apartment.

They had been called there by one of the man’s friends, who said the man had posted a disturbing message on Facebook in which he threatened to harm himself.

The officers asked to come inside but were denied. They asked the man to come out, and he said no. They left information about resources in the community that were available to him. Eventually, after about 30 minutes of trying to speak to the man behind the closed door, the officers left.

This week, the officers’ summary of that call for service was discussed during a workshop attended by psychiatrists, a group of police officers with enhanced training in dealing with people with mental illness and others who participated via videoconference. The officers wanted advice on how long they should try to help a distraught person when nothing appears to be working.

The Albuquerque Police Department holds a videoconference on Tuesday about dealing with people with mental illness. The project has existed in Albuquerque for more than three years. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The videoconference project is called CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Options). It consists of weekly videoconference workshops and has existed in Albuquerque for more than three years. Originally a statewide project, it has spread across the nation along with interest in improving interactions between police and people with a mental illness. On the call this week were police and professionals from Texas, Illinois and North Carolina.

For years, similar ECHO projects have existed for health care professionals to help providers in rural parts of the state treat various health conditions. But Albuquerque police were the first to roll out a program for law enforcement officers.

Working together

On Tuesday, about 40 people gathered for the workshop, either remotely or in person, at the Summit Office Building in Albuquerque.

“How long should we stay knocking on the door and at what point should it be OK for officers to leave somebody who is potentially suicidal?” asked Detective Matthew Tinney, who works in the Albuquerque police’s Crisis Intervention Unit and is one of the facilitators of the video conferences. Other officers and doctors chimed in with their own questions.

“Does he have a history with APD?”

“Does he have a psych history?”

“What was his reaction to officers?”

“Any signs of intoxication?”

Then came advice. One officer suggested that if the police do leave the residence, they document in their report the types of calls for service that were waiting for a response while they were on the call. Others suggested that police not only leave information about community resources with the man, but also with his friend who called police in the first place. Checking with police supervisors before leaving was suggested.

As far as how long police should wait, there was no clear-cut answer.

APD officers negotiate with a person threatening to jump from the Louisiana overpass on I-40 in February 2018. Workshops in Albuquerque have helped train police officers on how to interact with people in crisis situations. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“There isn’t really a good answer. This is the same thing psychiatrists face all the time. Should we discharge or should we commit?” said Nils Rosenbaum, the medical director of the APD Behavioral Health Division. “It’s really hard, and it’s emotionally difficult to make these kinds of decisions. And these are the ones that can keep you up at night. Just know that you aren’t alone.”

DOJ grant has run out

A “final report” on the CIT ECHO project that showed positive results was published this month.

But funding for the project has run out.

Jennifer Earheart, the project coordinator and one of the report’s authors, said the U.S. Justice Department grant that was used to operate the project for three years has expired and that officials are looking to secure grants and city and local contributions to continue the project.

The project has increased officers’ confidence and comfort when interacting with people with a mental illness, changed their attitude toward people with a mental illness and increased their awareness of community resources that are available to that population, according to survey results by program participants.

Prior to being a part of a CIT ECHO videoconference, more than 20 percent of participants thought that use of force was often required to maintain officer safety when interacting with people with a mental illness. After the conference, that percentage dropped to about 3 percent, according to the report.

The report also showed that after participating in ECHO video conferences, participants felt their confidence in dealing with people with a mental illness increased and they were more aware of resources that are available to the mentally ill.

“There is so much variation and limitations of a traditional CIT, standard, 40-hour course. (CIT ECHO) is really a platform for continuing education in law enforcement and it’s using a really innovative model,” Earheart said. “The fact that we are able to use that model and do something really innovative makes this project really special.”

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