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Police and mental health workers collaborate~ RH 11-5-15

Police and mental health workers collaborate
By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli
STAFF WRITER | November 05, 2015

Mental health crisis counselor Alecia Armstrong is embedded in the Rutland City Police Department.

“There is magic in the uniform and the flowered hippie shirt,” Armstrong said about her side-by-side relationship with officers in the field.

“We get a call and maybe the person is a danger to self or others,” she said. “I like to meet (the officer) at a gas station, and depending on the information we have, we can plan how we will approach the house.”

The way Armstrong explains it, the officers first make sure there are no weapons, and then she goes into the home to talk with the person in crisis. “We want to keep them from going further into the crisis and further into the system,” she said.

The pairing of law enforcement officers with mental health crisis workers is a growing trend, and Vermont’s statewide Team Two Training for law enforcement and crisis workers helps build relationships and bridge gaps between the two sometimes disparate roles.

“This is a follow-up to Act 80. The goal is to teach crisis workers and law enforcement how to work collaboratively,” said Kristin Chandler, Team Two Training coordinator for the state. “We look at safety, clinical and legal aspects.”

Last year, Vermont lawmakers passed legislation mandating that all law enforcement officers receive training to better understand how to interact with people with mental health issues.

“The Act 80 training teaches de-escalation skills and looks at tone and demeanor,” said Cindy Taylor-Patch, head of training for the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford.

But different from the mandatory Act 80 training, Team Two Training is based on crisis workers and police solving case scenarios together.

“They hear each other’s viewpoint and they’re learning a lot about each other,” Chandler said about the one-day, seven-hour sessions.

Still, crisis workers, dispatchers and law enforcement officers must take Act 80 training prior to Team Two training, said Chandler.

Despite a push to change the way officers and mental health workers interact with mentally ill people in the field, the concepts of slowing a situation down, de-escalating and disengaging tactically are sometimes seen as opposite to a traditional police culture,” said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, law enforcement think tank in Washington, D.C. “Some officers, with the best intentions, think that their job is to go into a situation, take charge of it, and resolve it as quickly as you can.”

Team Two Training is free and funded by a collaborative grant from the state Department of Mental Health and the state Department of Public Safety.

Recent trainings were held in Burlington and Springfield.

The Team Two program started in 2013 with a train-the-trainer initiative and it is now in its second year under the grant.

According to Chandler, about 300 people —184 police officers, 119 crisis workers, and 37 others (including dispatchers and prosecutors) — have already been trained.

Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell was part of the train-the-trainer sessions and is now a co-facilitator, along with Chandler.

“The law enforcement trainers represent several small police departments,” Chandler said. “They are really committed.”

Brickell said this training is helpful on many levels.

“If we can get the right assistance to the person, we might not have to keep going back,” he said about repeat crisis calls, adding that police officers are not mental health experts. “There are better ways of dealing with this (mental health crisis). Slowing down, and now they go in and maybe talk for half an hour. The result is better for everyone.”

Currently, 67 percent of Brickell’s officers have been Act 80 trained and several have already gone through Team Two training, he said.

“With Team Two we learn a lot of what they (mental health crisis workers) go through,” he said. “We have the same frustrations, but these trainings help.”

Brickell added that trained dispatchers can have a calming effect on the situation.

“Every time I go to a training, I learn something new,” he said. “And we are finding common ground.”

Tonight, at the 2015 Annual Meeting of Rutland Mental Health Services and Rutland Community Programs, Capt. Scott Tucker of the Rutland City Police Department will speak about law enforcement and mental health issues.

The meeting, held from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Rutland Country Club, is open to all staff, providers, individuals and community members.

kathleen.phalentomaselli @rutlandherald.com

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