Police receive training to work with mental health patients, team with professionals for solutions

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18 2012 8:00 p.m. MDT

Greg McArthur of the Unified Police Department competes in a memory game while listening to voices through headphones at Crisis Intervention Team training at the Pioneer Precinct in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012. The course teaches law enforcement agencies to respond to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Salt Lake City police detective Ron Bruno was given the chance to go to Memphis in 2000 to become certified in crisis intervention, he thought it would be a learning opportunity.

Now, he oversees the Crisis Intervention Team training academies held around the state as many as 18 times a year in an effort to teach law enforcement officers how to best help those with mental health issues.

"It's very vital, especially if you take into consideration that, in any given year, one out of four adults in America could be diagnosed with a mental disorder — not always a full-blown mental illness, but some disorder," Bruno said on a break from a training session Thursday at the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office.

This population can be especially vulnerable to the crisis situations that bring law enforcement officers to them, Bruno said. The training is designed to teach law enforcement officers how to address what's going on and how best to help.

"Law enforcement generally comes into contact with people when they are experiencing a crisis," he said. "Something is happening to them. Something is causing them to need outside assistance and, more than the general population, they're going to have emotional distress."

The program is open to officers all over the state, but whether the course is required is decided by the police agency, Bruno said. In the course of the training, officers will do simulated exercises, such as trying to focus while wearing headphones that project multiple voices. They'll also meet and talk with mental health patients at the Utah State Hospital and learn about the various clinical disorders that affect people so officers know what to do in crisis situations.

"What this training allows the officer to do is, one, identify that they are dealing with mental health issues; two, better de-escalate the situation before having to revert to physical force to control the situation; and three, understand the resources that they can develop for a more permanent resolution," Bruno explained.

But more than anything, he said he hopes officers who attend the training sessions walk away with greater empathy and understanding.

Fellow Salt Lake City police detective Mike Hamideh on Thursday attended his first crisis intervention training in his 17 years as a police officer.

Hamideh said he resisted the training, not because he was being obstinate, but because he felt that, after 17 years, he pretty well knew what he was doing. But after undergoing training, he said he now has a greater ability to understand and communicate.

"It was a paradigm shift for me," Hamideh said. "To me, the biggest benefit is the fact that I'm able to transcend different barriers. It's one more barrier I can transcend to communicate with a person where before I might not have been."

The thing that made the most impact on Hamideh, he said, was the trip to the Utah State Hospital, where the patients shared their experiences. One patient told him that when he hears voices, any touch, even a casual, gentle one, can feel threatening.

"It was eye-opening," Hamideh said.

Bruno said the training has impacted him personally and changed the work he did as a detective. Before the training, he didn't know what someone with a mental illness is going through. Now, he has an understanding of both their condition and what can help them.

"I also understand the system," Hamideh said of the mental health programs and services available. "That system has not and still is not the greatest support system. However, I am seeing the changes. I'm seeing the mental health services and realizing the need for change and partnership to force those changes. Better resolutions are starting to become a reality."

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