Hartford police train to de-escalate mental health crises

  • Whitney Hussong is a social worker for the Hartford Police Department and coordinates with organizations including Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Health Care and Rehabilitative Services of Southeastern Vermont and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to provide crisis intervention training to department staff. Hussong was photographed at the Hartford Police Department in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2019 9:48:40 PM

HARTFORD — In an attempt to respond to a growing number of mental health crisis calls, the Hartford Police Department has had all of its officers undergo training specifically for mental health-related emergencies, the department has announced.

The two-year effort marks the department’s completion of the “One Mind Pledge,” an initiative started by the International Association of Chiefs of Police to improve the way police departments across the country respond to calls regarding someone suffering from a mental illness, according to Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten.

In order to complete the pledge, a department has to create policies addressing mental health crisis response, train and certify officers in crisis response, and establish a partnership with a nearby mental health organization, according to the pledge’s website.

“The purpose is making sure that when mental health issues come to a crisis point, we’re able to deal with them because we have a better understanding,” Kasten said.

In Hartford’s case, that meant partnering with Brattleboro-based Health Care & Rehabilitative Services of Southeastern Vermont (HCRS), which has an office in White River Junction. The department also required all 36 police officers to complete at least one of three mental health crisis training programs and implemented two policies that instruct officers on how to respond during a crisis. As part of the partnership, HCRS established a social worker, Whitney Hussong, at the police department to help train police officers and monitor the care of people following a mental health call.

The pledge comes at an appropriate time. Kasten said mental health crisis calls are common — and growing — in the Upper Valley. This year alone, the police department has responded to 166 calls about people needing help for a mental health issue, with at least 40 people “in crisis” when police arrived, he said in an email last week. Last year they responded to 187 such calls, and in 2017 they responded to 157, according to a representative for the police department.

“Having served the first part of my career in a much larger community, coming to the Upper Valley I was somewhat taken aback at the number of crisis calls my staff was answering,” said Kasten, who previously served as the chief deputy in the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland.

Though the department has been working on the pledge for only two years, its history with mental health crisis training goes back to 2015, when Kasten implemented crisis intervention training, known as CIT. The 40-hour program, which nearly 90% of the department has completed, is the most popular of the three training options that police could complete for the pledge. CIT focuses on helping police understand mental health crises, de-escalate an incident, and bolster a connection between police officers and other people involved in mental health treatment, including doctors, social workers and the family and friends of someone who’s in crisis.

“They’re building relationships and getting to know some of the people they’re going to work with,” Kasten said of the officers who have completed CIT. The overall goal is to create a community of support around the person who needs mental health treatment and prevent another crisis.

Lebanon police have been using CIT for years and helped bring it to Hartford, Kasten said. For Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello and his officers, the training has created a better connection between individual officers and the people they’re coming to help.

“There’s a lot of principles involved in the training,” Mello said. “Understand what’s going on with an individual and give (the officer) tools to understand de-escalation.”

Just last week a Lebanon police officer, Emily Winslow, was given an award for talking to a man who was contemplating hurting himself on a bridge in Lebanon, Mello said.

“She utilized all of her training in de-escalation and, rather than hurting himself, he was able to be talked down by the officer,” Mello said. “It’s a prime example of what this type of training means to us and how it can help out.”

A presentation on de-escalation published on the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ website lists “active listening,” mirroring words and body language and asking open-ended questions as some examples of de-escalation tactics.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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