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Crisis training a new approach for law enforcement

Police, firefighters and emergency responders from across Iowa gathered in Iowa City on Monday for a week of training to unlearn everything they know about responding to people with mental illnesses.

The 40-hour crisis intervention training is intended to give law enforcement better tools to identify symptoms of mental illnesses and techniques to de-escalate situations when people they encounter on patrol are having a behavioral health crisis.

Johnson County Sheriff Maj. Steve Dolezal said the training will be a new way of looking at those situations. Some of the techniques — like active listening — run counter to what officers learned in the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, where they’re taught to establish a command presence.

“We’ve been to the academy. We realize that we don’t get a lot of training with mental health and people in crisis,” Dolezal said. “It’s a missed opportunity for us.”

Using that traditional law enforcement approach can escalate tensions and result in people repeatedly cycling through jail or emergency rooms, which don’t address the root of their problems with substances or mental illness.

The training, held at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, will increase safety for law enforcement and the community, as well as help save officers’ time by eliminating instances where they take patients to emergency rooms and wait with them for hours only to see them discharged again, Dolezal said.

Iowa City Police Officer Andy Rich, who’s participating in the training, said it represents a shift he’s seen in law enforcement in recent years to try to understand the cause of a person’s behavior.

“When I first started in law enforcement it was, basically, you go and determine is the person a threat to themselves or anybody else. If there’s a ‘yes’ to either one of those questions, they go to the hospital, and there wasn’t a lot of discussion involved,” Rich said.

Rich has trained in dealing with victims of trauma, which he said has “completely changed my job” and allowed him to more easily communicate with individuals in crisis. He sees the crisis intervention training as another step in the right direction.

“The number one thing that really helps me talk to folks who are in crisis is really having that trauma-informed training. I can’t say enough about it,” he said. “So I’m pretty excited to learn some different techniques in dealing with folks.”

Sixty-four people from various law enforcement agencies in Johnson County and around the state are participating in this week’s training, which is the first of three planned sessions in Johnson County this year. By the end of the year, organizers expect almost 200 officers and emergency responders will be trained.

University of Iowa Police Capt. Mark Bullock led the opening session Monday, explaining the history of the crisis intervention model, which began in Memphis, Tenn., in the 1980s after police fatally shot a man who was high on cocaine and armed with a knife. Bullock, a former Memphis police officer, praised Johnson County officials for putting the training in place without waiting for such an incident to occur.

“I think it’s pretty amazing that the leaders in this county had the foresight to say we need to get ahead of this before something happens,” Bullock said.

Johnson County’s training model is based on a similar training in San Antonio, Texas. Over the past two years, around two dozen local officers and elected officials have traveled to San Antonio to learn that model. The training this week is the first officials have offered locally.

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“San Antonio has set the gold standard, and we want to try to do what they’re doing down there,” Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said.

The program’s kickoff on Monday featured speeches from local elected officials and other policymakers who have pushed for the crisis intervention model. Jessica Peckover, the program’s primary organizer, told officers not to think of this week as just another training but as an attempt to stop people with mental illnesses or substance abuse problems from falling through the cracks.

“Crisis intervention team training is not just about a 40-hour training about mental illness. It’s a community movement,” she said.

Officials are hoping that the next step in the process is a restoration center — a facility where people who are intoxicated or experiencing a mental health crisis can be taken to sober up or calm down under the care of trained professionals. The approach is modeled after a similar campus in San Antonio and would theoretically prevent those people from using emergency rooms and jail resources, saving money in the long run.

Peckover is leading the efforts to find a location for a facility and to nail down funding for the project, which could cost between $5 million and $6 million in initial construction and another $2.4 million to operate annually.

Johnson County and Iowa City have expressed interest in contributing funds construction, and Peckover said she’s hoping to cover operational expenses through partnerships with providers like the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Much of the facility’s operational costs could also be made up through revenue from billing insurance providers like Medicaid, Peckover said.

In the meantime, the training will give law enforcement new ways to talk to people they encounter on patrol and new resources to help those people stay out of the criminal justice system.

“It’s part of the evolution of law enforcement,” said Johnson County Sheriff Sgt. Brad Kunkel. “It builds on the service component of law enforcement, and it helps a lot of us remember why we got into this line of work to begin with.”

Reach Stephen Gruber-Miller at 319-887-5407 or sgrubermil@press-citizen.com. Follow him on Twitter: @sgrubermiller

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