2008-05-22 / News

Police train for calls involving mentally ill

By Sam Bari

When Jamestown Police Chief Thomas Tighe received a letter from Elizabeth V. Earls, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Council of Community Mental Heath Organizations, Inc., he read it and responded immediately.

Earls sent letters to 35 police departments around the state offering free training for police offi- cers to help them properly respond to emergency situations involving the mentally ill. The letters were signed by seven member organizations of the 11-member trade association.

Chief Tighe asked Earls if he could invite neighboring police departments to join the Jamestown officers at the workshop that was recently held at the town library. His efforts resulted in representatives from Newport, Middletown, and North Kingstown police departments coming to the island to attend the four-hour class last Thursday.

Susan Early, training director for the trade association for the past 15 years, hosted the program "Recognizing and Responding to Individuals with Mental Illness," a PowerPoint presentation developed 10 years ago by certified trauma responder Richard Crino, R.N. in conjunction with the Coventry Police Department.

"More than 25 percent of calls to police involve people with mental illness," Crino said. "Yet many officers are not adequately trained to handle those calls." He said the program was designed to give officers a basic understanding of the symptoms and behavioral patterns of people suffering from mental illnesses like schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, and other personality disorders.

"We teach them that people experiencing psychosis do not see the world as we do. Their reality is different. However, they are not criminals," Crino said. "We teach techniques to help police officers de-escalate situations without using lethal or any unnecessary force. There are many methods that can resolve sometimes tense situations peaceably," he added.

Earls said she offered the training program because two incidents had occurred where two people with mental illness recently died at the hands of Rhode Island police in the space of two weeks.

She said in her letter to the police chiefs that she did not in any way wish to cast blame on the police officers involved. The two tragic incidents demonstrate the critical and urgent need for uniform and comprehensive training of all police in Rhode Island to ensure proper response to situations where persons with mental illness, cognitive impairments or developmental disabilities are involved, Earls said.

After the workshop, Chief Tighe said that he felt everyone who attended learned valuable information that will assist them in handling situations involving the mentally ill. He said Crino clearly explained the signs, symptoms, and behavioral patterns of those suffering from mental illness so they could be recognized and dealt with accordingly.

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