For Philadelphia cops, it's a course in gaining patience in dealing with mental crises

Posted: October 29, 2010

THE CLASSROOM - an old cinderblock number with heavy drapes and long wooden tables - was filled with cops who wanted to learn how to become better cops.

It was a little past noon on Oct. 20, and the 35 officers who squeezed inside this musty, stuffy room at the Police Academy were there voluntarily to receive crisis-intervention team (CIT) training.

The training itself is old news; the Police Department began offering cops courses on how to handle mentally unstable individuals back in 2007, after getting reamed for years by mental-health experts who believed that excluding such training was literally a matter of life and death.

But the training became a topic for discussion again earlier this month, when a mentally challenged young man named Patrick Johnson died after he was zapped twice with a Taser by a cop in Northeast Philly - a cop who had received the crisis-intervention training.

An unavoidable line of questions arose:

What exactly do cops learn from crisis-intervention training, and what kind of difference does it make out there in the real world?

The short answer, said Lt. Francis Healy, who oversees the program, is that the training teaches officers "to switch from cop mode to social-worker mode, and hopefully avoid violent encounters."

There is a great need for cops to wear both hats.

According to the city's Department of Behavioral Health & Mental Retardation Services, one in 10 people encountered by police on the streets struggle with some kind of mental illness.

Most basic forms of police training teach cops to be aggressive and authoritative, Healy noted.

"You know, staring somebody down, getting close to them, that kind of stuff in reality can actually escalate a situation if you're dealing with a person in crisis," he said.

The weeklong training session, developed by the Department of Behavioral Health and the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, teaches cops to recognize the hallmarks of a person in "crisis" - that is, someone who could be having hallucinations or hearing a chorus of twisted voices in his head.

As part of the training, the cops who were at the academy on Oct. 20 spent more than 30 minutes listening to MP3 players that had recordings of voices.

Some heard indecipherable chanting; others heard angry threats and insults.

All the while, the cops were performing exercises - filling out paperwork, answering questions from people posing as doctors and trying to get information from one another.

"It gives you an understanding that you have to take a step back and look at a situation as a whole before you react or make a decision," said Officer Quiana Richardson, who works in Nicetown's 39th District.

"You learn how to deal with people who have mental illnesses, and you feel like you can do your job better."

The exercise proved to be eye-opening on a personal level for Officer Tanya Burke, who works in Southwest Philly's 12th District.

"My sister was schizophrenic," she said quietly of her late sister as she walked down a hallway inside the academy.

"Now I know what it was like for her. It's unimaginable."

Burke and Richardson are among some 800 cops who have been CIT-trained.

Ultimately, Healy said, 25 to 30 percent of patrol cops will receive the training.

There are no plans to make the training mandatory, Healy said, because police brass believe that the training is more effective when it's offered voluntarily.

The crisis training, of course, is more than just about hearing voices. Some exercises focus on teaching cops how to calm a person who is in the throes of a paranoid episode or to leave a place where the person is causing a scene.

"You have to try to find cracks in the shells," Healy said.

For some people, that could be as simple as offering them a bite to eat or a soda to drink.

Healy said the officers are also taught to ask politely - the key word being politely - if a person in crisis would like to visit one of the city's five crisis centers, which are in local hospitals including Temple University Hospital, the Einstein Medical Center and Pennsylvania Hospital.

"Imagine if someone told you, 'You're screwed up in the head and you need help,' " he said. "You'd get defensive, too."

If an unstable person is taken by CIT cops to a hospital - or, in some cases, jail - the officers contact coordinators at the Department of Behavioral Health & Mental Retardation Services who maintain files on the individuals and keep track of the care they need.

"That sharing of information helps us take better care of our members," said Dr. H. Jean Wright II, a forensic psychologist and criminal justice coordinator at the Department of Behavioral Health.

Wright said he believes the CIT training has improved how police respond to people with mental illnesses.

"There will always be some glitches and disappointments and things we can do to train better," he added.

"That's the nature of our business."

It's still unclear if the Patrick Johnson case will be considered one of those disappointments.

The 18-year-old, whom family members said was mentally challenged, was Tasered twice after he lunged at cops inside his house on Oct. 7.

Police said he had a history of more than a dozen sometimes violent encounters with authorities.

His cause of death has still not been determined, and the incident is being reviewed by police Internal Affairs investigators.

Healy said CIT cops are taught to use Tasers only for intervals of 5 seconds, and only if the person they encounter is acting aggressively.

"I tell them, our goal is to keep you and the people in crisis alive," he said.

"There are two tragedies when you have to kill or hurt somebody.

" You have to live with it the rest of your life, and we never want to see someone who's sick get hurt," he added.

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