County programs train officers in how to deal with mental health issues

The skills needed to be a police officer are many. Along with enforcing laws and keeping the peace, Wisconsin law enforcement officers must decide whether a person is a danger to himself or others and should be placed on a Chapter 51 involuntary mental health hold.

For years, out of concern for liability and the safety of all involved, officers often would err on the side of caution, placing a hold to make sure the person did not harm himself or others, said Margaret Larson, coordinator of the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater
La Crosse Area.

Now two La Crosse County programs give officers training about mental health issues to help them decide how best to deal with a person suspected of being in some form of mental health crisis.

Two years ago, the county began Crisis Intervention Training for the La Crosse police department, sheriff’s department, jail staff and others who deal with people with mental illness.

Started by the Memphis Police Department more than 20 years ago, CIT “introduces officers to the range of mental illnesses, medications, experiences of people living with mental illness, and of their families, local resources and best practices that increase the safety of the officers as well as of the people they are assisting,” according to the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area, which organizes quarterly training sessions.

The 40-hour program aims to lower the risk of injury to those involved, reduce the number of contacts police have with people with mental illnesses, reduce 72-hour mental health holds, enhance working relationships with crisis workers, reduce manpower and overtime, and see greater involvement of family and friends of those with mental illness.

The initial goal was to train 25 percent of La Crosse police officers and sheriff’s deputies, but leaders from both departments thought the need was so great they wanted everyone trained, Larson said.

With mental illness the No. 1 disability in the United States and La Crosse County issuing more civil commitments than any other county in the state, La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson said, the need for training cannot be overstated.

“Sixty percent of mental health consumers report having contacts with law enforcement,” Helgeson said. “Persons displaying signs and or symptoms of mental illness or severe emotional distress deserve dignified treatment. And, the primary goals of CIT are safety, understanding and improved service to the mentally ill and their families.“

Helgeson said the training also helps officers identify persons in need of community services and assists in getting them connected to resources and reduces the criminalization of those persons with mental illness that come in contact with law enforcement.

“Officers learn to distinguish between criminal behavior and behavior of a mentally ill person in need of services,” Helgeson said.

La Crosse police Lt. Robert Lawrence said the mental health training is crucial because officers regularly deal with people with mental illness.

“We issue Chapter 51 holds every day, if not several times a day,” said Lawrence, who heads the department’s training program. “But we’re also working with people many times a day in crisis or who have some sort of mental health issue and a vast majority of those do not result in a Chapter 51.”

In 2007, La Crosse County officers issued more than 700 mental health holds, which is among the highest for any county in the state, according to mental health and law enforcement officials.

While the more than $750 cost of a mental health hold is the client’s responsibility, many are unable to pay the expense, meaning additional cost to the county. Plus, unnecessary holds fill some of the shrinking number of beds in local psych wards, leaving others to be transferred out of the area for treatment, Larson said.

CIT training and the county’s Crisis Response Program, which was started in 2001, are two ways county officials hope to reduce the number of holds.

To date, about a third of the La Crosse police officers and sheriff’s deputies have been through the training sessions, with another group set to start training next month.

Thanks to grant money and mental health experts donating their time, the quarterly training programs are offered free to the law enforcement agencies. But the departments still have a huge investment in committing to the program, said Donna Gunnerson, clinical services supervisor with the La Crosse County Human Services Department.

“It still takes a real commitment from the law enforcement agencies that must free up their officers for a week of training, must pay them to attend and pay someone to cover for those who are unavailable to work,” Gunnerson said. “We certainly appreciate that commitment.“

But CIT is just part of an overall emphasis in making mental health a top priority, Lawrence said.

In 2009, LCPD will add more training on autism and the overall mental health of the officer.



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