Deputies Train to Spot Mental Illness and Avoid Tragedies

Imagine this: A sheriff’s deputy arrives at a house to find someone screaming, hitting and biting someone else. When the deputy loudly orders the person to calm down, they only get more agitated, incoherent, and aggressive.

What does the deputy do?

If that person has a developmental disability, and that deputy has been through Sgt. Linda Cerniglia’s Crisis Intervention Team training, the answer might just be: the right thing. It’s the sort of situation that can escalate quickly to violence, but learning how to spot a person with a mental disability, how to communicate, and how to deescalate can make all the difference.

“We teach them basically to try to slow things down while maintaining officer safety, and look for certain clues in what’s going on with the behavior,” Cerniglia said. The Sheriff’s Office training deals with a wide range of mental disabilities—from autism, to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, to even coping with law enforcement officers’ own mental well-being and how to help a fellow officer contemplating suicide.

Cerniglia, a hostage negotiator, came to head the CIT program after years working as a field officer, in the county’s gang unit, and as the sergeant of the school resource officers.

“Even working with the gang community, I learned very quickly, if you just treat them with respect—don’t agree with the crime—you’ll get more information,” Cerniglia said. “I got a lot of informants that way. It’s all about listening and communication.”

The CIT program turned four years old this week. The program launched amid a spate of police shootings in Loudoun. Three people were killed by local law enforcement agencies in Loudoun in less than a year in 2014, including 17-year old Christian Sierra, who was struggling with depression and threatening suicide. When Sierra started cutting himself at a friend’s house, the friend called the police. Sierra fled, and Virginia State Police said Sierra ignored commands to stop and advanced on a Purcellville police officer, who shot the teen four times in the chest.

The Sheriff’s Office is still awaiting a State Police report concerning an Aug. 5 case in which a deputy responding to a domestic violence call fatally shot a man who allegedly advanced on him with a knife. The family said the man suffered from mental illness.

The sheriff’s office says more than 237 deputies—over 60 percent of the total force, including in court security and the jail—and every dispatcher has received CIT training. Sheriff Mike Chapman says he hopes to train every deputy in the next two years.

“The way we were responding to the community wasn’t always in a positive way,” Cerniglia said. “More like jumping to conclusions. And it’s also a national response now that we’re seeing, where we in law enforcement may not have made the right choices at the right time; where if we would have had the training, things would have turned out differently.”

“For example, when you encounter an autistic person who may not respond to commands, it’s not because they’re being defiant—it’s because they have autism,” Chapman said.

Crisis Intervention Team training is a weeklong, 40-hour course including classroom instruction; role play exercises; and site visits to Inova Loudoun Behavioral Services, the county’s homeless shelter, Boulder Crest Retreat, Paxton Campus, and the county Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Developmental Services.

Cerniglia was recently awarded international certification by Crisis Intervention Team International, making her one of only 80 people in the world to hold that certification. The National Alliance on Mental Illness named her CIT Deputy of the Year in 2014.

All that to steer people with mental illnesses toward appropriate resources instead of jail, and to keep a tense situation from becoming violent if it doesn’t have to.

“I always use the example of somebody who has dementia, and they end up going to the wrong house, and they enter,” Cerniglia said. “Well, there’s no criminal intent, so what we’re trying to do is actually stop them from going into the jail for very, very minor offenses, but get them to resources that Loudoun has to offer.”

Loudoun Sheriff’s Deputy First Class Jaime Holben, a CIT instructor, said the training has “absolutely” made a difference in his field work.

“You can really use this training anywhere, on any call that you go on, just from the communication skills that you learn,” Holben said. He recalled an interaction he had with a man with schizophrenia. Deputies would be called to his house daily, if not more often—either by him, who suffers severe delusions, or by people in the area who saw him wandering onto dangerous roads or would report him as a suspicious person. Holben managed to talk the man into meeting with Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services staff.

“I met with (Emergency Mental Health Supervisor) Beth Flaherty, and she and I spoke with the subject for probably four hours,” Holben said. “We were finally able to get him on board for services that he needed.”

That person was provided housing, which came with treatment guidelines.

“He’s been in the county services for probably a year and a half now, and over that time, the calls for service regarding that particular individual have greatly reduced,” Holben said. “Once every three months we might get a call.”

That change in philosophy—taking hours on one call to save daily visits in the future—is a big part of the adjustment for officer, Holben said.

“A lot of the times we wouldn’t take the additional effort to actually take them down to mental health and sit and have a meeting on how we can come up with a long-term solution,” Holben said. “We have other calls for service that are waiting and stacking up, and lots of times it’s, get through one call and get to the next. With CIT, it’s really showing us the importance of taking our time on these calls so it’s a long-term solution.”

Melissa Heifetz, administrative director of ALLY Advocacy Center at Paxton Campus, said Paxton helps deputies learn how to communicate, how to deescalate, how to reach a caregiver, and some common characteristics of autism, among other things. A person caught up with law enforcement or the criminal justice system can quickly get themselves into deeper trouble, she said. Paxton Campus’s Positive Interactions with Law Enforcement initiative also helps train Paxton students how to interact with law enforcement where possible, given the students’ disabilities.

“Many times, people with disabilities really want to please authority figures, so if you’re interrogating someone, they’re trying to tell you the right answer, what they think you want to hear,” Heifetz said. “If you repeat the question, they may give a different answer the second time. Rarely will they say ‘I don’t know,’ that’s a very abstract concept. Things like that will make a person appear guilty even if they’re not.”

The pressures of an interrogation room, she said, can often lead to false confessions from people with disabilities. Paxton Campus helps officers learn how to ask open-ended questions and check for comprehension, for example.

She’s seen results at her own organization. She told a story of a bus from Paxton Campus taking two students home when one became aggressive toward the other while the bus was moving. The bus driver pulled over and called the police. One of the responding officers had CIT training, and knew how to calm things down.

“If you had a different officer, who hadn’t been CIT trained, they might be trying to arrest the person who aggressed, instead of understanding that it was a manifestation of their disability, that it wasn’t their intention to hurt the other person,” Heifetz said. “These kinds of situations happen all the time.”

“That’s what I hear from a lot of the deputies I have trained that have been very seasoned deputies,” Cerniglia said. “They wish that they would have had this training 20 years ago.”

After the suicides of several Loudoun teenagers, Cerniglia plans to adjust her program in 2017 to teach deputies how to deal with children and teenagers, who also may react differently.

She said things have changed from the days of Dragnet and Hawaii Five-O, with their stern, unapproachable cops and “just the facts, ma’am.”

“I learned when I worked midnight shift in a very, very active community that I had to be able to talk to people and slow things down, because my backup could be quite a few minutes away,” Cerniglia said. “So if I come in rushing things, you’re going to go hands-on at some point. So it’s more like, if you set up trust and rapport with people, that’s the key.”

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One thought on “Deputies Train to Spot Mental Illness and Avoid Tragedies

  • 2016-10-21 at 10:27 am

    Additional training is great and I do hope it has helped in some situations. I also hope that it doesn’t cause law enforcement to not act and get themselves or someone else hurt. It’s a fine line of an in the moment assessment I guess.
    I also am not sure this article makes a case (not that it was trying to, but politicians seem to do) that it has had an impact in use of force circumstances. So, in 2011 the county was going to this CIT program (not what some politicians in public safety would have you believe – that it was their idea and they initiated the program).
    Two years into the training the article characterizes it as still being launched in 2014 when an unusual number of police shootings occurred. Hmm? How many of these incidents were the officers trained in CIT? Maybe they were not trained and that would be an argument for how it does help deescalate situations. Similarly if they were trained then there would be questions too. It’s also interesting that calls for others stack up for responses because of the additional time committed by law enforcement. How about funding staffing for mental health to relieve officers quickly? What statistics are there to show the overall hours committed by officers has been significantly reduced by the opening of the center in Leesburg? That was touted that it would have a huge impact. Where is the data to show this? What about the guns for those in mental crisis, do they confiscate them when there is an emergency and they have probable cause that they have a gun in their home? What happens if they just leave knowing there is a gun in the home and they take the person to get more help, and the person only returns home that same day or in a few days? What laws are there to protect them proactively by removing the gun? When can they do this?
    I am sure this training has helped and will continue to help, but there are a lot of questions on how it is impacting calls and use of force. Someone keeps saying they are accountable to the voters, but you just can’t get any specific data to assess accomplishments or areas needing work.

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