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Western Mass. Police Officers Train With Berkshire Actors

On Friday, actors from the Royal Berkshire Improve Troupe portraying real-life mental health crisis situations helped train law enforcement officers from across Western Massachusetts.

Organized by the Berkshire County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the unscripted role-playing designed to increase an officer’s confidence in handling a call involving individuals with mental illness, comes after a 40 hr training course the officers participated in to recognize and deal with mental health crises.

Laurie Martinelli, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts, said that the Crisis Intervention Training held in Berkshire County is the only training of its kind in Massachusetts.

"It's absolutley vital that police have this as an additional tool in their toolkit in dealing with mental illness," said Martinelli.

Frank La Frazia, one of the improve actors assisting with the crisis training, said that this was the fourth time he’s role-played with officers at this workshop over the years. La Frazia said that in some cases it’s been difficult to change the thinking of  n officer trained in a certain way to deal with a situation.

"We're really trying to get them to take a moment, step back, think about it, and analyze the situation," said La Frazia.

Andrew Carney, a patrol officer from the Northampton Police Department said that the tools he learned over the week will be valuable for the calls his department deals with on a regular basis.

Carney said that by watching the role-playing and taking notes, and communicating with other officers in other departments on how they might deal with the situation differently than the officers on stage is all a big help. 

Major Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office was one of the instructors of the week-long course. He said that while the course is necessary, he’d like to see officers trained more with dealing with mental health episodes at the academy level.

"We need legislative support for that, we need it to be put as a line item in the budget to be able to sustain that training and to offer it ever officer that goes through recruit training," said Grady.

Laurie Martinelli of NAMI Mass said that of the 800-hours of police academy training recruits are required to take, currently, only 4 hours are dedicated towards mental health issues. Martinelli said that NAMI’s Crisis Intervention Jail Diversion Project aims to work with the state to expand those hours to 20.

"We'd also like to see every city and town to have access to this kind of training," said Martinelli.

And Major Grady said that since the Crisis Intervention Training program was first offered three years ago, the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office has seen results.

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