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Mental Health

Training Connecticut Police in Mental Health 101

Jeff Cohen
Fairfield Officer Lance Newkirchen on his way to visit the family of a man who, two days earlier, considered suicide.
The goals are clear: give officers the training they need to tell the difference between a criminal event and a mental health event.

How do you tell the difference between someone who needs to be taken to jail and someone who needs to be taken to the hospital? That’s a big concern in Connecticut, where the intersection of law enforcement and mental health has been a huge issue since the Newtown shootings of 2012. 

WNPR spent time with police officers to learn about their training in mental health.

Lance Newkirchen, a patrol officer in the town of Fairfield, drives his cruiser to everything from alarm calls and domestic disputes to car accidents and trees in the road. He’s also an officer who responds specifically to mental health calls.

“We’re going to go meet with a father whose 21-year-old son, two days earlier, at three o’clock in the morning, through his depressive disorder, was having suicidal thoughts,” he said as he drove.

Fairfield has 107 officers and 18 are trained like Newkirchen as part of a Crisis Intervention Team. The department’s target is to reach 20 percent. The program began in Fairfield about three years ago, and the goals are clear: give officers the training they need to tell the difference between a criminal event and a mental health event. The difference can mean treating people instead of simply locking them up.

In Fairfield, officers also follow up with people in crisis a few days after the event has passed. Police say they want to make sure families have as much support as they can. They also want to make sure police have as much information as they can, in case they ever have to go back.

Newkirchen said doing this job means being a good listener. But it doesn't mean being soft, or forgetting police tactics.

"They know they’re dealing with someone who is depressed," Newkirchen said. "They know that they’re dealing with someone who may have a samurai sword collection in their basement. They know that they’re dealing with someone whose parents are divorced, and the father is very anti-police, and the mother is pro-police. There’s all [these] things that will get somebody -- an officer responding, as he’s walking up the front walk -- get him 90 percent of the information he needs to be effective."

Credit Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte

Before he got to the house, Newkirchen checked to see whether any guns or gun permits were related to the address. He also looked at prior calls, and asked about the criminal histories of the people involved. Once at the house, the family agreed to let WNPR attend the interview, but family members wanted neither to be identified nor taped.

Inside, Newkirchen talked through a brochure of services: people and agencies that could help them out if they need it. He also had a two-page list of questions.

Newkirchen said to them, "So, the diagnosis right now -- it’s my understanding that your son has been diagnosed with some sort of depressive disorder? Is that correct? Okay. Is it just -- is it manic depression; is it depression; is it bipolar; do you know?"

"How long ago was he diagnosed?"

"Do you know: has he been compliant with the medication?"

"How would you describe the family dynamic? Supportive?"

"Assaultive thoughts?"

Back in the cruiser, Newkirchen said doing this job means being a good listener. But it doesn't mean being soft, or forgetting police tactics. It just means adding to them. "It’s easy to interview," he said, "and get the person who just stole four tires from BJ’s to really tell you what’s going on. It’s incredibly difficult to get someone who believes they have an assignment from the FBI to really admit that they don’t, and they do need help, and it’s time to go and talk to somebody at the hospital. So that’s the skill set."

That set of skills is something officers say you don’t get at the police academy, but you can get it at a week-long training. That’s where I first met Newkirchen a few weeks ago, as 50 or so officers from across the state gathered for the first day of a five-day seminar.

"The characteristic of your work... is that you never know what you're walking into."<br><em>Madelon Baranoski</em>

Sponsored by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, the seminar touches on everything from making suicide assessments to handling people on the autism spectrum; from forging partnerships with community mental health providers to understanding de-escalation techniques.

Credit Jeff Cohen / WNPR
Madelon Baranoski speaks to an audience of police officers learning about mental health.

Madelon Baranoski, one of the first speakers, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. She talked about what she calls Mental Health 101. "The characteristic of your work," she said, "that sets you apart from every other professional, is that you never know what you’re walking into."

Baranoski's first goal was to give the officers an understanding of various types of behavioral health issues. Take, for instance, psychotic illnesses: those, she said, are the ones that make a person unable to tell the difference between thought and reality.

To illustrate, Baranoski confessed something many people feel when giving a public talk. She was nervous, and worried about how people will react. "As long as I know I’m thinking it," she said, "I have a choice on how to change my behavior. But if I were mentally ill, particularly if I had a mental illness that interfered with what we call reality testing, I think, 'Because you’re staring at me, you’re thinking I’m stupid.' I’m hearing your thoughts, and your thoughts are, 'She ought to go home. What does she know?'"

John McGrath, a third-year local police officer in Fairfield, said the training is an eye-opener. "Protocol for a police officer is always, 'Protect yourself,'" he said. "To be able to learn what they’re thinking, and what's going on in their mind, kind of gives you a better perspective of what’s going on, and what you’re able to do to further protect yourself, and to protect them to not hurt themselves."

Back in the cruiser, patrol officer Newkirchen said that the training these officers are getting is extremely practical. He probably gets two or three mental health related calls in an eight-hour shift, but he said the training is useful in half of the calls the department gets. That's a lot of demand.

As for the visit with the family of the man who was suicidal, Newkirchen said it went pretty well. "I would say 50 percent of the time are calls like this, where we are making, I think, a huge difference. We won’t be back, and that family has a very different sense of what we do as police officers."

But not all of them go that well.

"You know, when you walk out the front door, you’re going to be back," he said. "You just get the sense that they take the brochure, [and] they don’t look at it when you give it to them. They just throw it on the kitchen table.”

Governor Dannel Malloy has said he wants to make sure all Connecticut law enforcement officers get some kind of training like Newkirchen. A bill to that effect is before the state legislature.

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