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Berkshire Police Officers Train For Mental Health Crisises

Jim Levulis

Law enforcement officers in western Massachusetts recently completed a week of crisis intervention training. The course focused on dealing with people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Working with local theater actors, officers were put in role-playing scenarios, such as a suicide situation.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Officewas one the instructors for the 18 officers taking the course. He says social awareness of mental illness has increased, and so has the need for law enforcement to know how to approach potentially dangerous situations. Grady adds police academies today offer training geared toward this, but many officers already out on the streets have never been specifically educated in this way.

“What we try to teach during this is week is a set of skills that allows them to be more analytical about a situation when they arrive; taking more of the physical clues from the person that they’re dealing with and try to develop an analysis from that,” Grady said. “If this is somebody that’s in crisis either through a mental illness or a substance abuse issue, or maybe both, a combination, a co-occurring disorder, and by being able to recognize that, helping these people to reach treatment and support as opposed to arrest and incarceration.”

Brian Plouffe worked in a psychiatric ward and now works as an actor. He played the role of man standing on a bridge threatening to take his life in the situation heard at the beginning of this story. Two officers worked to prevent him from doing so.

Plouffe says in his experience, making a personal connection with a person in a mental crisis works in real-life situations. That was the case when he was acting as well.

North Adams patrolman Greg Onorato was one of the officers in the course.

“I always was under the assumption, and the way that we see it on patrol, is that people with mental illness are the perpetrators of crime,” Onorato. “But in reality and when they show the statistics and when you really think about it, they’re more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator.”

Deborah Sadowy is board president of the Berkshire County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The organization has raised the money for the 40-hour course that has trained some 100 officers in the past four years. She says one in four adults and 10 percent of children will experience some type of mental illness this year.

“It could be a bipolar illness, so one minute they are focused and calm,” Sadowy explained. “The next minute they’re screaming and yelling. The next minute it’s something else.”

Mental health experts, some even suffering from an illness themselves, and family members of those with brain issues, spoke to officers during the course. Onorato says as a first responder, an officer has to wear many hats ranging from mediator to therapist. He says this course gave him the tools to deal with a variety of situations where he would be required to change out those hats.

“You have to try different approaches rapidly to see which one gets the best response,” Onorato explained. “Prior military, sometimes if you speak to them sternly and sharply they’ll revert back to almost a basic training type of mentality. They’ll calm down and listen to what you’re saying. Whereas people who have never been exposed to anything like that, if you speak sharply at them, they’ll lash out ‘Don’t talk to me like that.’ It’s a respect thing.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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