The number of crisis calls that our police officers respond to is on the increase. There was a time not that long ago that an officer having to deal with a person in crisis was a once in a while type of call. More recently that has changed. I have spoken to many cops from Monmouth and Ocean counties and they all tell me about the almost daily response their agency has to make to a person in crisis, sometimes several of these calls a day.
These crisis take many forms: a suicidal person, a person who is suffering from mental illness, a very intoxicated and depressed person, domestic violence incidents gone bad, family problems and young people having trouble coping.
In any event, these are dangerous calls for our officers to respond to. When dealing with people a police officer has to always keep in mind that we don’t always know what’s going on in their lives or in their heads. We have to keep on guard for warning signs or signals given out by the people in crisis. We may be called to a home because of a disturbance and when we get there we find out that there is someone locked in a bedroom with a weapon threatening to hurt themselves.
How an officer deals with this type of situation depends on many factors, including the type of training and experience they have with crisis situations. Most police agencies provide some type of training for their officers, but it is not always adequate.
I recently read an article about the San Francisco police department in California. The chief of the department was trying to come up with a way to deal with the 30 crisis calls per day his officers have to deal with. What they had done to try to help the street cops was to send several officers at a time to a training program in New Mexico at a cost of about $4,000 per officer. This was cost prohibitive and difficult to get all the offices to the training.
The other problem he saw was that because those officers that received the training were not specifically sent to crisis calls, the skills they had acquired were only being used sporadically. It wasn’t until the officers shot someone that they focused their attention on the problem and increased the attention they give to dealing with these types of calls.
This situation in San Francisco is common all over the country. Agencies are trying to cope with the increasing number of problems people are experiencing and how the police deal with them.
Some towns in our area have really good programs in place to provide a cooperative response to people in crisis. They consist of their Human Service professionals, counselors trained to help people in crisis, in conjunction with the police to address these problems. Some of the hospitals provide mobile response screeners that come out to people’s homes to give on scene evaluation of the crisis and help the police to resolve the situation.
These are good, pro-active steps forward for communities that are called on to provide services to their citizens in need. By working together we can help the members of our towns who need the help and at the same time help our officers as they cope with the growing number of crisis calls they handle.
Having been on many of these calls over the years I can tell you they are not easy to handle. I have received specialized training and acted as a negotiator on numerous occasions. Every situation is different and presents its own set of facts, challenges and possible solutions. One common key factor I have found in these calls for service is that the actions of the first officer on scene can shape an incident and its outcome.
An officer that begins a dialogue with the person in crisis in a calm, non- threatening manner can create a life line to the person in crisis as well as setting the stage for a positive resolution. The officer that takes a more rigid, “do it because I say so” approach can escalate a situation from difficult to dangerous. So the training our people receive is very important for them and the people they serve.
Last year I met an officer from Fredericksburg, VA. He told me a story about a young police officer that went to a crisis call involving a man and his wife having a heated domestic dispute. When the police arrived, the man, who was also intoxicated, took his two young children hostage. The officer, who had not received the extra training in how to communicate with someone in a crisis situation, tried to resolve the situation as best as he could. He asked the man to come out. When he refused, the officer tried to get the man to respond and give up by telling him how much trouble he was in and that he would be going to jail. The man shot his two kids and himself.
This was a tragedy for the man, his children, his wife and their entire family. It was also a huge tragedy for the officer who was simply trying to resolve a very tense and difficult situation using the limited training and experience he had. No one involved in this case will ever be the same.
I was moved by this story and realized the magnitude of the problem. These calls are on the increase. We must work toward a better way to helping people in crisis, and we must provide our officers with all the tools they need to do their jobs. If you are or someone in your family is in crisis there is help available. Call your local hospital, human services office or the police for guidance.
If you have any questions about crisis training send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Let me know what you think.