Public Safety & Homeland Security

St. Paul Officers Train to Respond to Crisis, Not Crime

The St. Paul Police Department has been putting its officers through Crisis Intervention Team training for years, but this is the first time it’s brought the training in-house.

by Mara H. Gottfried, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. / April 21, 2017

(TNS) - The man who called police rubbed his hands together, blinked his eyes rapidly and explained his concerns to the officer: He was watching the bar across the street from his apartment and noticed people were going in and out all night. He worried they were running drugs. And he was pretty sure the owner killed someone.

As St. Paul officer Ser Xiong was going through Crisis Intervention Team training Wednesday, he focused on what the man — a Hamline University theater major — was saying in the role-playing scenario.

Xiong kept the conversation going with the man, who called himself Dave, to draw out more information. Dave told Xiong he used to take medication because he heard voices. He wouldn’t go back to his apartment because he thought it was bugged.

After about seven minutes, a training officer called an end to the training scenario. She asked a small group of officers what they’d learned. She then led them through a brief discussion about other ways they could handle an encounter with someone who suffers from schizophrenia.

The St. Paul Police Department has been putting its officers through Crisis Intervention Team training for years, but this is the first time it’s brought the training in-house; the department previously contracted with a private company. Now, the police department has built its own training program, based on a national model, and says it’ll finish training all patrol officers in CIT training by the end of the year.

The in-house program will cut the department’s CIT training expenses in half, but the most important objective was getting to the heart of the “team” part of the training, said Sgt. Sean Zauhar, St. Paul police CIT training coordinator. The police department brought in staff from Ramsey County mental health services, a Regions Hospital psychologist and other local experts to train officers.

“The biggest thing is we want to connect with the community resources, so we develop those relationships,” Zauhar said. “These are all St. Paul resources coming in to educate our officers about what is out there, what is an alternative to taking people to jail or giving them a ticket when we want to be looking at what help we can get for them if they are having a mental health crisis.”

St. Paul police officers say they encounter people who are mentally ill on every shift they work, and the de-escalation skills they learn in CIT training can also be applied to other situations.

The push toward getting officers trained in CIT is happening around the country as law enforcement agencies examine training and policies about use-of-force, particularly against those suffering from mental illness. A large percentage of people fatally shot by police in Minnesota in the past decade have been diagnosed as having a mental illness or having exhibited signs of mental illness.

Officers in Minnesota are not required to have CIT training, but it’s been a topic of discussion at the state Legislature, and a conference committee is due to take up a House public safety bill Thursday that would require all officers to receive training in mental health crisis response. It would also provide funding for it.

140 PATROL OFFICERS LEFT TO TRAIN AFTER THIS WEEK

The St. Paul department began putting all its new officers through CIT training in recent years and has also been giving the training to more-experienced patrol officers.

When the 40 hours of training is completed this week, the department will have trained just over 200 of its approximately 340 patrol officers. The goal is to train the remaining patrol officers this year.

This week, officers received classroom instruction Monday, and progressively more challenging scenario-based training on Tuesday and Wednesday. Students in Hamline University’s Making Waves, a social justice theater troupe, have been acting out various crises for officers.

“I think there are members of the troupe, particularly the students of color, who have not had positive encounters with the police and know that there’s issues that need to be worked on,” said Carolyn Levy, a Hamline professor of theater and director of Making Waves. “This seemed like such a wonderful way to begin to talk about community relations and relationships with officers. The officers are learning about how to answer calls to the mentally ill and de-escalate the situation and hopefully make sure the situation ends with the person being transported to the hospital, as opposed to an arrest or worse.”

TRAINING HELPS OFFICERS ‘EXPAND PATIENCE’

St. Paul is not the first department in Minnesota to bring CIT training in-house. The Rochester police and Olmsted County sheriff’s office have been teaming up to train their own officers and deputies in CIT since about 2009, and they’ve also trained other department in southeastern Minnesota, said Rochester Police Capt. Casey Moilanen. He said the biggest benefit is being able to customize the department to the needs of their departments.

The training often requires officers to take a different mind-set as they respond to calls.

“So much of the time we’re used to going to situations and we’re fact-finding because we’re trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on,” Zauhar said. “But when you’re approaching someone who may be mentally ill, you’re going there to build some rapport. You’re asking different questions in different ways to get to the bottom of how you can help them the best.”

In the role-playing scenario with “Dave,” who turned out to have untreated schizophrenia, officer Xiong tried to persuade him to go back to his apartment.

“We’ll go with you, we’ll make sure it’s safe,” Xiong said as Dave expressed concern and said he wouldn’t go.

Officer Cindy Rost, who was coaching the newer officers, asked for feedback from the officers observing the scenario.

“(Dave) kept saying, it’s not safe in his house, so the only thing I was thinking was, ‘Hey, if it’s not safe here, how about we bring you somewhere safe?” offered officer Mailia Yaung.

“Perfect,” Rost said. “… When you’re out on patrol and out on the street, it will become easier once you start using this.”

Yaung said going through the CIT training teaches officers to “expand your patience.”

“It’s about listening to people more, giving them the attention,” she said. “I think that makes them feel more like they’re human.”

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©2017 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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