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Lebanon Police Train to Handle Mentally Ill in Crisis Situations

A Lebanon woman used to call police nearly every day to report crimes that never occurred. Sometimes she would insist that someone had broken into her home and stolen her medication. Lebanon police officers, as they are legally bound to do, would respond. After finding nothing they would leave, knowing they would likely be called back soon.

But recently, an officer tried a different approach: He talked with the woman about her obvious mental health problems, and was able convince her to return to West Central Behavioral Health, where she has resumed a treatment program.

Today, the woman calls once every couple of weeks, usually to just to chat with the officer.

The Lebanon Police Department hopes this is a sign that a recent training program to help officers better handle people with mental illnesses will succeed.

Ten Lebanon police officers recently received specialized training to form a Crisis Intervention Team, in the hope that the team will be able to defuse situations involving mentally ill subjects, reduce recidivism and guide people into treatment instead of the criminal justice system.

“We never did that before,” said Lebanon Police Lt. Matt Isham. “It was, ‘Get the guy, get out.’ What do we care? We stopped what was going on and we got them charged and we were done. There was no stopping and taking care of the person. What we are learning is, take 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and maybe you can get to the point where you can deal with it peacefully.”

It is a common lament among police officers: They find themselves acting as quasi-social workers, not crime-fighters, for much of their time on duty, but they have relatively little training in dealing with people. “We are the catch-all,” Isham said. “We get called to little Johnny who had ADHD or PTSD, and mom can’t contain them. What do they do? They call police. But we don’t do anything with them. They’re not committing crimes — what do we do? Nine times out of 10, they’re in crisis by the time we deal with them.”

The Crisis Intervention Team training was provided, for free, by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, West Central Behavioral Health and other nonprofit groups, and included simulations of police encounters. Christine Finn, director of crises and consultation services at DHMC, offered two staff members and one psychiatric resident physician to help in the training, and had them pretend to be psychiatric patients in role-playing scenarios.

The officers also learned about substance abuse, civil commitments, symptoms and affects of various mental illnesses, and what medications are often used and the effect they can have.

The goal of the program, first developed in the late 1980s in Memphis, Tenn., is “identify, de-escalate and divert.” Lebanon became the fourth police department in New Hampshire, joining Manchester, Concord and Rochester, to undergo the training.

The New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council offers some training for new officers in mental health, Isham said, but it is not extensive.

Diane Roston, medical director for West Central Behavioral Health, said Lebanon’s additional training was badly needed.

“The police are asked to do more and more related to people who are psychiatrically, chronically ill,” Roston said. “The goal is to really provide information so that police officers who are first responders can respond effectively to people with mental illness at the scene so that they reduce the need for force, reduce the need for additional intervention, right at that point. The idea that we focused on was to provide information that would empower the officers, so that they would have more information, more knowledge of how to be effective in situations involving people who have mental illness.”

Roston said she hoped the training and continuing experience also would make officers more sensitive to the needs of the people they are summoned to handle. “I think also there’s a comfort level and a confidence that comes with knowledge and having some sensitivity to what it’s like,” Roston said. “There’s less of an anxiety about working with someone who has mental illness if you’re more familiar with it.”

But implementing a Crisis Intervention Team team isn’t just an effort to help mentally ill people. There are potential benefits for police officers if the program works as planned.

Officers often spend hours at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with mentally ill subjects who are too agitated to leave unsupervised. If they can get them calmed down, and convince them to go to DHMC voluntarily, they can save hours of time. Moreover, they hope, they can reduce the number of incidents in which they use force to subdue an agitated subject. “We don’t want to go hands-on with people,” Isham said. “We can get hurt, they can get hurt, all the other stuff that comes with (that).” Isham said his department is considering training more of its officers in the coming months.

Police emphasize that people who have committed serious crimes will still face charges. But for many, Isham said, it makes more sense to get them help then to throw them in jail.

“We’re doing the right thing, for the right reasons,” he said.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher contributed to this report. Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.