Local crisis team will bring together multiple agencies
|Lt. Joe Edwards|
Local law enforcement could soon change the way it deals with people suffering from mental health issues — with a crisis intervention team.
The team is the brainchild of local California Highway Patrol Commander Joe Edwards.
“You bring together mental health, police, medical, fire personnel, and you have a team that can go out and be proactive,” Edwards said. “If we have someone who we know needs help, maybe someone who has had multiple contacts with law enforcement, this crisis team goes out and tries to have a consensual contact with the person to see if we can help them.”
For Edwards’ idea to work, it will require cooperation and commitment from many county agencies. The commander said most everyone is on board with the plan.
“The sheriff and I have met with the district attorney and the head of mental health and other agency heads,” Edwards said. “We should be doing the training by the fall.”
Edwards will be the teacher. He is a certified instructor through California POST (Police Officer Standards and Training).
He has already conducted the eight-hour training for the local CHP officers and staff. He also conducted the training courses for the CHP offices in Susanville, Alturas, Ukiah, Garberville and Clear Lake.
It was the success of those trainings, coupled with the need for those services here, that prompted Edwards to pitch the idea of a local crisis team.
“Here at home I wanted to take it to another level,” Edwards said. “This is one of those things that is so important that we need to blur those lines between local and state and federal. We need to work together to make things better.”
Sheriff Greg Hagwood was quick to embrace the crisis team idea. He said he has no problem with the CHP training his staff.
“It’s something that we certainly endorse and welcome,” Hagwood said. “And it’s in keeping with trends that have been emerging throughout not just California but the country, in terms of addressing individuals with mental health issues in a way that we can avert a crisis.”
District Attorney David Hollister said his office was on board, too. “I am very much looking forward to working with Lt. Edwards on this team,” he said. “It is my sincere hope that we will have the help and cooperation of mental health in this endeavor.”
The district attorney and sheriff have been critical of the county’s mental health department. They have accused mental health of neglecting the criminal justice system.
Mental Health Director Peter Livingston, who has strongly denied those claims, said he was willing to consider a crisis team idea.
“It’s an interesting idea. I think that it’s worthy of consideration,” Livingston said. “I’m aware that there have been different approaches created throughout the state and country to help address these issues. And I’m more than happy to be at the table to talk about that.”
Edwards said the mental health department would play a key role on the team. But he said he would create a crisis team even if mental health isn’t included. He added that the county’s alcohol and drug department has pledged its support.
“It’s all coming together,” Edwards said. “We are ready to get started.”
A better approach
Edwards said three events over the past two decades have led to profound changes in police work.
The first was the Rodney King event in Los Angeles. “That had to do with how police interacted with the use of force,” he said.
The second was the O.J. Simpson event just a few years later. “That brought to the forefront how police handled domestic violence,” Edwards said.
The third event was the Kelly Thomas incident in Orange County.
Thomas, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia, was beaten to death by Fullerton police officers in July 2011.
The beating was captured on video and went viral on YouTube.
“Watch that video and ask yourself: Is this the way we want to respond to people with mental health problems?” Edwards said. “We didn’t want our officers to have a similar experience. The only way to change that is to teach and increase our awareness, and give our officers some tools.”
Crisis team model
Many metropolitan police departments have created crisis intervention teams. But in rural areas like Plumas County, the teams are much less common.
The challenge for rural areas is that a limited number of staff are tasked with covering a large geographic area.
“We have unique challenges here,” Sheriff Hagwood said. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t try to put something together that will provide a better service, and a more timely service, than what we are able to do today.”
Hagwood said identifying qualified people in the various agencies and training them, as the CHP commander is proposing, are the first two steps. Putting a team in place that can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the county would be the final step.
“But that’s also the most challenging,” Hagwood said.
Crisis team’s job
Edwards said police officers are often the first people to contact a person with a mental health disability. He said the crisis intervention training teaches officers and first responders how to recognize the signs and prevent the encounters from escalating into violence.
“It allows us to come into a situation where there’s not a threat to someone’s safety or life, but we encounter a person with a mental health disability,” Edwards said.
“We want to give our officers a tool to recognize what they have, and how they can help this person to get, perhaps, an evaluation or assessment as a patient, and not to ramp things up into a criminal situation.”
Edwards emphasized the team’s ultimate goal is to get people help without resorting to force.
“It fulfills two purposes,” Edwards said. “It shows that we are trying to be proactive to help. It’s not done by force; it’s done by consent.
“Second, it shows that all of the different agencies in the county are trying,” he said. “Even if we can’t force the person to receive treatment, at least we are showing them that we care and that we want to help them and give them some opportunities.
“Here’s a reality: I think all of us — regardless of the makeup of our family — have someone who struggles in this area. So it’s very personal for all of us — whether you are a police officer or not,” he said. “It’s part of real life. And we want to make changes here locally with the people that mean the most to us — our family and friends.”
Edwards’ mental health training
Lt. Edwards was one of about 25 CHP commanders in the state selected to become crisis intervention trainers.
After two years, he became a POST-certified instructor.
He said initially he found it odd that the CHP planned to conduct mental health training for its officers. “But after I learned about the course, I realized this is amazing, and I’m glad we are part of it.”
He said the training included input from actual mental health patients.
“Some of the patients said that they found that even though they are not in control at the time, they had this deep-down sense that if the police officers are treating them well, it helps the situation,” Edwards said. “And when it’s all over, they look back and realize that it made the situation better, that the police cared about them. It works so much better for everybody involved. It helps with the long-term fix.”