The task of responding when someone is in a mental health crisis frequently falls on police. Officers who are primarily trained to respond to criminal activity often have to occupy a softer role, supporting stability and helping people access resources.
Law enforcement agencies across Washington County recently finished a 40-hour crisis intervention training on the Pacific University campus in Forest Grove.
It was the largest training since they began a few years ago with 35 participants from corrections facilities, police departments and parole services, according to Lauren Quinsland, Community Outreach Specialist with the Forest Grove Police Department.
Quinsland said it's crucial for officers to learn language that allows them to deescalate a situation, especially when someone in crisis is likely to be intimidated by an officer in uniform. She said officers in Forest Grove particularly take the training seriously because the department has fewer resources than larger departments in the county, and backup can take a while in more rural areas. Officers said they're more comfortable in the field with the deescalation tools.
The eight-hour per day trainings took place every Wednesday for five weeks, ending on Oct. 2. They included role-playing deescalation scenarios — Quinsland has played someone trying to convince an officer that voices in her head are not tied to a mental illness for years. Officers also attended discussions by mental health professionals such as patient intake nurses from the St. Vincent Medical Center's psychiatric unit and officials from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"One of our detectives actually does a presentation about behavioral health and autism," Quinsland said, adding that officers are seeing an increase in need to respond to people in crisis who are on the autism spectrum. "His presentation is a parent's perspective. He gives a very personal look."
Quinsland said the department is also tasked with mitigating misconception from the public about what officers are able to do when responding to a welfare call. People often ask "why can't we just arrest these people, they're walking up and down the street talking to themselves. That's not a crime. Not every person who's mentally ill is in a moment of crisis. And conversely, not every person who's in crisis is mentally ill."
She said the training empowers officers who often leave welfare checks feeling like they can't help someone.
Forest Grove police officer Bon McBee said although he can't be sure someone in crisis will seek out resources, the training taught him how to talk to people in a way that increases the chances that they will get help.
"Sometimes you drive away and you're like, 'Man, that guy really needs some help, but there's nothing I can do for him,'" McBee said. "With the (crisis intervention training) you realize that there are a lot of different entities that work together and you can reach out to."
McBee said communicating with local mental health professionals about calls for specific individuals is a big part of ensuring someone living on the street, for example, is stable.
"Be like, 'Hey, this is what this person is going through, do you know them?'" he said about following up with mental health resources.
When responding to a welfare check call, McBee said the most important thing is having the tools to build rapport with someone.
"I like to communicate on a first-name basis. Give them space is a big thing because the uniform is kind of a threat to some people," he said.
The training teaches officers what not to say or do to someone in crisis. Quinsland said when role-playing she knows to become more cooperative if an officer tries to communicate on a first-name basis, but to become less cooperative if an officer is standing near her in a way someone could consider intimidating.
"A lot of them are just big guys," Quinsland said. "They can't control that, but if you're talking to somebody who has issues with sensory processing or they're in crisis, and they have three or four people who are towering above them, you might actually be making it worse."
McBee said his job typically requires him to communicate with people in absolute terms, telling someone to do something or not do something. But on welfare checks he can't do that. At the training, he learned language that is more of a negotiation, he said.
"Just telling them, 'I can try,' was a big one for me'" McBee said about people who demand something from him. "It's not a yes, it's not a no, it's I can try, and it keeps the conversation going."
Quinsland said although the training is primarily intended to improve the wellbeing of citizens, it can also improve officers' wellbeing.
"Chances are, yeah, you're a cop and you're sitting here dealing with people on a daily basis, but it's very possible your wife is experiencing depression, and maybe this gives you an extra tool," she said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.