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Mental health training provides new landscape for law enforcement

Crisis Intervention Team program will become part of regular training for cops

COURTNEY VAUGHN - St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss leads a Jeopardy-style quiz game for law enforcement students Friday, April 24. The game was part of a week-long Crisis Intervention Training program for Columbia County police and sheriff's deputies.

Amid nationwide tensions over policing tactics, Columbia County law enforcement agencies are now being trained to handle people in a mental health crisis.

Friday, April 24, wrapped up a week-long Crisis Intervention Team training in St. Helens for Columbia County’s police, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and fire and rescue personnel.

Last week’s program marked the first of more to come.

Often called the “Memphis Model,” the training focuses on ways to recognize behavior and deescalate situations involving people in mental distress or under the influence of drugs. It gives law enforcement officials tools and training to empathize with a distressed person and provide direction to mental health treatment, rather than jail.

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Law enforcement officials respond to questions during a quiz-style game following a Crisis Intervention Team training in St. Helens Friday, April 24. The week-long training marked the first in Columbia County.

“Some day, each and every [officer] in Columbia County will have gone through this training,” St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss told a room of about 23 participants. “My ask of you guys is to be ambassadors of this program.”

The CIT program is a collaborative effort between mental health professionals and law enforcement.

It surfaced in Columbia County earlier this year, when local law enforcement officials teamed up with mental health agencies, including Columbia Community Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc., to form a steering committee. The committee also includes stakeholders from the county’s corrections department, medical responders, a state judge, and a prosecutor from the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office.

“We’ve met monthly with the purpose of identifying gaps in how we serve the mentally ill and people in mental health crises in Columbia County,” Moss said. “We see people in mental health crises or work with people who are mentally ill on a daily basis. There are things that happen around the country and Portland, locally, that suggest we need to do a better job of helping those people.”

Two days after the completion of the first CIT training, first responders from throughout the county were dispatched to a home in Deer Island, where a suicidal man with weapons threatened to take his life.

The scenario is common for local police and sheriff’s deputies.

Over the past 30 days, the Deer Island incident marked one of at least two suicide calls for St. Helens police and one of about nine suicide-related incidents sheriff’s deputies responded to, according to incident logs.

Participants took part in scenario-based training and learned to recognize behaviors associated with psychological disorders and drug use.

“I had a lot of experience, but it’s good to get a new perspective,” Rick Graham, a sergeant with the St. Helens Police Department, said Friday. Graham said the training highlighted the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly seen in returning war veterans.

“Coming back, there are few resources and many [vets] are homeless,” Graham noted. “There’s a very high suicide rate among vets. That’s tragic. It really opened up my eyes.”

Participants were also trained to recognize excited delirium and other erratic behavior associated with drug and alcohol use.

“We’ve had a big increase of people using synthetic drugs. ... These people are in a medical crisis,” Graham said. “The sweaty man walking naked down the street — how do we safely and effectively deal with that?”

Scappoose Police Sgt. Dennis Viereck said the CIT program touched on the skills he already had, but provided scenario-based training to approach situations “from a mental health perspective instead of taking someone to jail.”

The county’s steering committee is applying for federal grant money to help offset the costs of CIT training.