POLICE WEEK: Elkader PD completes crisis intervention training

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


Since 1962, when President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation designating May 15 as Officers Memorial Day and the week in which it falls as Police Week, the time period has served as a way to honor, remember and pay respect to the men and women in uniform who put their lives at risk to serve, protect and keep safe the communities in which they work. 


It’s also a day that pays homage to those who have fallen in the line of duty, like the 136 reported law enforcement casualties last year, while another 378 were shot in the line of duty.


Understanding that risk and how to navigate it is of utmost importance for law enforcement agencies, including locally at the Elkader Police Department, where Chief Mitch Seitz is motivated by a policing philosophy that “places heavy emphasis on effective problem-solving police practices,” often with community participation. As he stated, “We believe our community is at its best when we’re healthy and we help take care of one another.”


This philosophy was a motivating factor behind Seitz and officer Adam DeShaw participating in an in-depth, 40-hour crisis intervention training (CIT) hosted at the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office. It’s an effort to better understand brain health when responding to calls which can “quickly spiral,” in the words of Seitz, during interactions between police and individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis.


The idea behind CIT is essentially a collaborative approach between police, behavioral health services and community partners to better understand behavioral health crises and to have a more informed police response to them. 


This is not a new approach. In fact, the concept dates back to 1988, after a fatal police shooting in Memphis, Tenn., when an individual with a known history of mental illness was shot while wielding a knife.


It was in the aftermath of that fatal shooting that CIT programs and training started to form, like the one Seitz and DeShaw attended. Training included components like establishing strong relationships between the aforementioned collaborative partners, as well as training officers on how to respond to CIT events, while also encouraging them to refer individuals in crisis to services, rather than arrest them.


According to Seitz, one takeaway is in the reduction of use of force techniques and the increase of utilizing de-escalation techniques during calls where a mental health crisis is present. Studies have shown this is a benefit of CIT programs, as de-escalation tactics often increase in officers who have been through training. De-escalation also helps lower some of the negative perceptions people might have of police. As Sietz stated, “we’re not all Robocop.” 


When law enforcement is called, people are already on edge, scared, anticipating the worst possible outcome, or as Sietz noted, “it’s typically not their best day.” This is where CIT training enters the picture.


Officers trained in CIT often have knowledge of behavioral health challenges, while also working from a place where the stigma of mental health issues has been reduced. They generally have greater empathy for the individual they are interacting with and have the confidence to successfully intervene, preventing an incident.


Although the practice of CIT has been around for nearly four decades, it’s still battling against some outdated practices, or “old ways” of policing, which Seitz is also trying to counter. This includes department philosophies that focus entirely on arrests, or approaches that are heavily oppressive, or departments that are simply not engaged with the public they serve. 


This approach, coupled with Seitz’s philosophy, is meant to be more transparent and one that focuses on the causal factors, not just whether a law has been broken or not.


It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to policing, since it’s unreasonable to respond to every call the exact same way. As Seitz mentioned, just ticketing and arresting people doesn’t always solve or stop the problem. Treating each call as if they’re separate—which indeed they are—is beneficial in the long term because it fosters trust between the police and the public, since the public knows they will be treated reasonably, while still being held accountable.


Seitz cited a recent example where he responded to a call where a person was clearly in crisis, and it had the potential to lead to a serious crime. Instead of handing off a pamphlet and leaving a potentially dangerous situation, Seitz looked into and discussed options with the person—to “navigate the mental health red tape,” as he put it, to provide them with services.


“Mental health is a problem, and jail shouldn’t be the end of the line for everyone,” Seitz said.


Seitz has also driven an individual with suicidal ideation to the necessary services, when, historically, the response would have been to leave them in a state of crisis if no crime was committed. 


CIT is beneficial in other areas as well, notably in research that suggests CIT has resulted in reduced officer injuries during mental health crisis calls, while also reducing arrests. That, in turn, reduces the time officers spend on calls, allowing them to spend more time serving the community and responding to other calls. There’s also a cost-saving feature through reduced jail time and court costs. As Sietz sees it, it’s an approach that favors “help over handcuffs.”


Seitz identified some benefits locally, like a decrease in escalated calls and use of force, lower resistance and a public more willing to call the police for help, including an increase in reports made because people recognize the department is actually willing to help and take the context of the situation into account when meting out consequences. It’s also led to more effective interventions, as people are more willing to discuss sensitive topics.


“We genuinely want to help people. We need each other,” Seitz said.


This is even more important in a rural setting, where access to services can be limited and the police often know the individual they’re responding to. Through training, they’re able to identify behaviors or indicators that would suggest a mental health crisis, like nonverbal actions, word choice, body language and escalated behavior, among others. Research suggests trained CIT officers are far more likely to know the causes and signs of behavioral health disorders.


“Most of what matters isn’t measurable,” Seitz pointed out.


The CIT training solidified everything Seitz believes is correct about approaching policing, from its emphasis on finding positive outcomes to problem-solving tactics that don’t always end in arrests. 


It’s an empathetic approach that understands “people are good, but they’re just struggling sometimes and I don’t want to see people get hurt,” Seitz said.

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