Vt. Cops Lag in Mental Health Training

West Lebanon — Only 43 percent of town police officers on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley have taken an eight-hour training course that prepares officers for dealing with individuals in the throes of a mental health crisis.

The course became required in 2006 for all police academy graduates seeking to become full-time officers. But it has been a challenge to get officers certified before 2006 to take the course. By the end of last year, 853, or 68 percent, of full-time law enforcement officers in Vermont — state, county and municipal — had taken the training, according to a report published by the Attorney General’s Office. Only 21 percent of part-time officers had taken the course by the end of 2013, the report said. The Vermont State Police swing the percentage upward, with 323 of 339 officers — 95 percent — having taken the course.

A bill now under consideration in the Legislature could make it mandatory for all law enforcement officers to take the mental health course. The measure is part of a bill that would enact a statewide training policy for the use of electronic control devices, such as Tasers, and that would require all state, local, county and municipal law enforcement personnel to take the course by June 30, 2017.

The push to make the mental health course mandatory for all police officers intensified following the death of Macadam Mason, a Thetford man who suffered from mental illness. Mason died after he was shot with a stun gun in 2012 by a Vermont state trooper.

“It was so clear to us that that was a death that need not occur and more should be done to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen again,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Certainly the way (the state trooper) interacted with Mason was not what would have been taught in the training.”

The advisory group of about 30 people who designed, implemented and oversee the course — called Act 80 after the legislation that created it — has also supported requiring all police officers to receive the training. Many officers who have not taken the course have received some form of mental health training.

Area police chiefs acknowledged the importance of the training: In recent years, their officers have responded to more people in a mental health crisis because of the decline in funding for mental health agencies. But the cost of sending officers to the academy for new training falls on town taxpayers. While the course is free, law enforcement leaders, especially in small departments, say they find it difficult to pay an officer to attend a day of training or find another officer to cover the shift while the officer in training is gone for the day.

Vermont Trooper David Shaffer, who shot Mason with a stun gun, had not taken the extended training course at the time of the June 2012 incident. Prior to 2006, officers graduating from the academy took four hours of mental health training, double what had been previously required. When the Act 80 course was added in 2006, the class stretched to 61/2 hours and in 2009 it became an eight-hour course, said Cindy Taylor-Patch, who teaches the course and is director of training for the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council.

Shaffer graduated from the last police academy class not to offer the course. However Shaffer’s basic training still included four hours of mental health training, Taylor-Patch said. Attorney General William Sorrell ultimately determined that Shaffer did not break the law when he fired the stun gun and was justified in firing a Taser at Mason.

“It appeared to us, especially when Tasers came along, that there might be an incident in which something tragic might happen and it finally did,” Gilbert said.

Several police chiefs said they wouldn’t mind if the course were mandated, but finding the time and money to send officers is difficult.

In Norwich, only one of six officers has taken the course. Chief Doug Robinson, who has taken the training, said he eventually plans to have all his officers take the course, but said he doesn’t have enough money in his overtime budget to send all his officers. If Robinson sends an officer to the course, he still has to pay him for his time, and he will also have to pay another officer overtime to cover the first officer’s shift.

Robinson said all his full-time officers have had some sort of mental health training, including a class in New Hampshire about juveniles in crisis.

Robinson said he found the Vermont course very useful because it taught not only how to interact with people in a mental health crisis, but also what outside agencies an officer can call for help. For instance, Robinson said, his officers respond to individuals who are suicidal, and they often call Health Care and Rehabilitation Services for assistance.

Officers already have to take courses in firearms safety, CPR, first aid and domestic violence response on a regular basis. Robinson expects the mental health course to be mandatory eventually, but fears it will put a strain on small police departments. “If they make it a mandated course, they have to consider that it’s more money that I have to request from the town,” Robinson said. “It has pluses and minuses like anything else.”

In Hartford, 1 6 of 23 officers have taken the mental health response course. Deputy Chief Brad Vail said his 12 patrol officers and four road sergeants have taken the class because they are the ones who most often confront people suffering a mental health crises. The detectives and deputy chiefs, including Vail, have not taken the training, although Vail said he would like his whole department to do so. Like Robinson, Vail said sending officers to training for a day constitutes a “double whammy” on his budget.

Even so, Vail said, he wouldn’t be opposed to making the training mandatory.

Bradford Police Chief Jeff Stiegler said he wants his two-part time officers to take the course, but it hasn’t been available this year. Bradford has been considering acquiring Tasers, but Stiegler said the department won’t until all his officers have had mental health training. Stiegler said he has taken mental health courses when he worked in New Hampshire, and said he would prefer mental health training to be taken annually.

“The hardest piece is we are not qualified to diagnose somebody with a mental health issue,” Stiegler said. “So it becomes a complicated matrix for us to decipher what the appropriate piece of action is. It’s really a difficult issue.”

At the beginning of this year, the course was available only to students in basic training and not to current law enforcement officers because the council has been waiting to see what action the Legislature will take. Taylor-Patch said she hopes to offer the course in June, and there can be as many as five to six courses a year with a dozen to 40 people.

“Folks are hesitant because they are worried the mandates will change,” she said.

Taylor-Patch, who has worked as a crisis screener and as a therapeutic case manager, discusses stereotypes and stigmas of mental health with officers. Officers are also taught how to de-escalate a situation by paying attention to their tone of voice, speaking clearly and simply, watching their body position to avoid intimidating an individual and slowing the process down.

The course is “definitely a good thing,” said Ed Paquin, executive director of Disability Rights V ermont, a statewide agency based in Montpelier that focuses on the rights of people with disabilities and mental health issues. People in a mental health crisis often have trouble communicating with officers who have responded to the incident, and police officers could easily mistake a person who is having difficulty communicating because he or she is suffering a mental health crisis with a person who is disobeying them.

Paquin said he thinks this course is only the first step. He would like to see a core group of officers who have specialized training in de-escalating situations and dealing with different disabilities. Ideally, police departments would include a trained mental health social worker to take over in situations that are better handled by mental health specialists rather than police officers.

“We need to do as much of this kind of training as possible, but we can’t expect during the course of their normal duty (that they are) going to be a mental health professional. We need to raise their awareness,” Paquin said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.