The guardian/warrior as social worker

An evolution in law enforcement culture focuses on how officers respond to and get treatment for the mentally ill.

Photo courtesy of Ad Van Brunschot / Adobe Stock
Photo courtesy of Ad Van Brunschot / Adobe Stock

Satan was on the phone and refused to be put on hold. The schizophrenic man who Satan called was forced to listen to the demon’s demands, and he was terrified. Acting erratic. Wild-eyed. Dangerous.

Then someone called the cops.

Fluffy the dog was killed by a car days ago but would be featured, alive, in an upcoming parade, according to a flier handed out by a happy, demented woman in front of a convenience store, where she stood holding and stroking the dead dog. She wanted you to pet the dog. She insisted, aggressively. The storeowner saw that she was scaring
away customers.

He wanted her gone. She wouldn’t leave.

He called the cops.


If you were a cop trained in crisis intervention in Northern Virginia and rolled up on these scenes, which are actual role-playing exercises used in officer training, you would now know what to do. De-escalate the situation. Use your listening skills. Listen to the person’s story. Empathize with them. But don’t drop your guard for a second. Keep safety a priority.

A few years ago, that same cop may have just put these people in handcuffs instantly, often after the scene had escalated and everyone was suddenly at risk of injury or death. Then that mentally ill offender would be taken to jail and charged with an offense, which would begin a cycle of incarceration that could continue for years.

Today, law enforcement knows that jailing a mentally ill person doesn’t work. A mentally ill person in prison doesn’t have a chance to get better and understand right from wrong or, in some cases, understand anything about the real world. They get out of jail only to return later.

That’s why new ideas and new training for law enforcement about how to confront and handle mentally ill people, like the two people demonstrated in this training scenario, have been put in place in Northern Virginia and other jurisdictions around the country.

“We were doing it backwards,” Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook says about how law enforcement had been handling the mentally ill in their fieldwork.

Cook is leading the effort for complete crisis intervention training for all law enforcement officers in the county by supporting a bill in the Virginia Assembly for courts to monitor the treatment and supervision of offenders who have special conditions and needs based on mental illness. “The worst place to be with mental illness is in jail,” he says. “So not only were we not giving them treatment that they needed, we were actually making their condition worse. We want to treat the illness first.”

The county has had crisis intervention training since 2006 but is going a step further with the recent creation of Diversion First, with the goal of reducing the number of people with mental illness in local jails by diverting nonviolent offenders experiencing a mental health crisis to treatment instead of incarceration. Diversion First expands crisis intervention by including all stakeholders in the process: mental health professionals, public safety, the courts, elected officials and human services. Officers will now be able to transfer custody of an arrested offender suspected of mental illness to a CIT-trained officer at the Merrifield Center, a new therapeutic crisis assessment site, instead of taking them to jail.

Sharon Bulova, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, says that Diversion First represents a new day in the evolution of police response when someone is mentally ill. “It really is a sea change in the way officers are approaching a violent person for them to be intuitive enough to understand that there might be more going on with this type of behavior,” she says.

She says that Fairfax County police Chief Ed Roessler is changing training for police officers to where they get CIT-Diversion First before training in the use of weapons. “This new training starts out with understanding the importance of the sanctity of life, judging and responding in a way that makes the officer sensitive to what is criminal behavior and what is a mental health or behavioral issue,” she says.

Chief Roessler says that 43 percent of county officers—397 police patrol officers—are now trained in CIT. Crisis training skills apply to dispatchers as well. “Dispatchers need to have a tactical mindset to get as much information as possible from the initial 911 call,” Chief Roessler says. “So when an officer gets dispatched, they would know that there is someone having an episodic issue, whether mental health-related or otherwise. That information would pop up on their screens. So the mindset of the officer when they get all of this information and are traveling to the scene is that they are better equipped to know what they need to do.”

Chief Roessler says that CIT training involves a tactical repositioning of the officers. For example, officers have been trained that anyone coming within their 21-foot perimeter could rush them in a split second. “What we are trying to say is what, tactically, can an officer do to hold and contain the situation so you preserve everyone else’s life,” he says. “When you hold and contain, then evacuate and isolate, you end up dealing with just one person, and then you can negotiate.”

Photo courtesy of Shalunx / Adobe Stock
Photo courtesy of Shalunx / Adobe Stock

Protecting the sanctity of life and better understanding who law enforcement is dealing with are two goals of any CIT program. But there is also the practical aspect of saving time and money that is driving the adoption of the program here and elsewhere across the country.

One scenario for officers dealing with a mentally ill person in the past began with a call about someone causing a disturbance at a convenience store. The officer took that person to jail, where the offender would then be assigned to the next available bed at a mental health hospital miles away, a four-hour round-trip drive from Fairfax to the state mental health hospital in Petersburg.

The officer would then have to maintain physical custody of that person, drive them to the hospital, get them admitted, then drive back. “They are shot for the night,” Cook says.

With the Diversion First program, the officer would take the offender to the Merrifield Community Services Center, where an officer would take over custody, getting the arresting officer back on the street in an hour.

Gary Ambrose, chair of the Fairfax County Diversion First Initiative, says that the program is an outgrowth of a growing sense in the country that prisons have become the nation’s mental hospitals. “There are 10 times as many people with mental illness in our nation’s jails and prisons as there are in any of the state mental health hospitals that are still open around the country,” he says.

The county had its first meeting about Diversion First on June 2, 2015, followed by a meeting with stakeholders the following August. The official rollout of the program began Jan. 1, 2016, with more to come over the next three to five years, including a mental health docket in the county court system that uses a problem-solving approach better suited to mental health issues and the addition of second mobile crisis unit.

Arlington County created its CIT in 2008, based at the county’s Crisis Intervention Center. The program has trained more than 175 law enforcement personnel in working with people with mental illness. It provides 40 hours of training to help law enforcement officers recognize the symptoms of mental illness when responding to calls.

Detained mentally ill suspects are brought to the intervention center, where custody is taken over by another officer, and a trained clinician then examines the person before deciding the next step: jail or a treatment.

At the Arlington CIT, one of the key learning points to help officers and sheriff’s deputies understand what it is like to be mentally ill involves role-playing exercises, where various scenarios of confrontations with a mentally ill person are re-enacted and de-escalation techniques are used.

Officers in Arlington are also given recordings that mimic the “voices in their head” auditory hallucinations that schizophrenics experience. “It’s eye-opening,” Arlington officer Ben Manning, a CIT trainer, says.

As part of their training, the CIT trainers bring in a professor of psychology to talk about bipolar disorder and the basics of mental illness. Arlington trainers also create forums for discussions with the people suffering from mental illness. “These people stand up in front of a room of 20 to 30 officers and say ‘This is what I deal with and why I do what I do sometimes,’” Manning says.

To an old-school cop, this type of training can appear to compromise officer safety. Officers are being asked to take a moment when they roll up on a potential crime scene and use listening skills to talk to an offender. That extra split second could spell the difference between de-escalating a situation or getting shot by the offender who doesn’t respond to the officer and decides to use force instead. “CIT training has a stigma among officers of being kind of touchy-feely,” Manning says. “They think we come in here and ask them to talk about their feelings and hug it out,” he says. “That is not what we are doing.”

Arlington police Capt. Adrienne Quigley says that there is a large population of mentally ill in the county, drawn to the area because it is the seat of the government, which encourages those with delusional thoughts to come here and hope to meet with the CIA or talk to the president. “I think we tend to recognize signs of mental illness quicker than other jurisdictions because it’s so prevalent here,” she says. “I think arming officers and deputies with yet another tool beyond the traditional academy training makes them more suited to handle the different environment that we face.”

She says that the CIT training represents a big transition in law enforcement as a whole. “The reality is that our job is as a guardian, serving to protect the community,” she says. “But at the same time there are situations where you have to turn into the warrior without question and do what you have to do. You have to learn how to balance that.”

In Loudoun County, the CIT program was started in 2012. “The impetus for us getting involved with this was because of my wife,” Sheriff Mike Chapman says. “She is a facilitator for the National Alliance of Mental Illness and had a personal situation with a family member. She said that I really ought to look into this,” he says.

Sheriff Chapman says that they have 200 of their deputies trained in crisis intervention, including deputies who work in detention centers. “When you have folks that are in jail and are resistant to being moved or transferred, we employ every skill set that we have to de-escalate the situation and try to do other things long before we decide to resort to any kind of force,” he says.

“I think this program is just an enhancement of the communication skillset—to make sure that we are using our minds and our communication skills before we resort to force in every situation where we can possibly do that,” he says.


The job of a police officer has gotten more complex, Sheriff Chapman says, with much more expected out of law enforcement. As national events involving law enforcement interactions have demonstrated, the proliferation of cell phones with cameras means that cops today are being watched by the citizens they serve more than ever. “That is a good thing,” Sheriff Chapman says. “It puts us on notice to make sure that we are doing things right.”

Cook says these intervention programs are not a reaction to the police shootings that have been in the news the past two years. “It’s more of a re-engineering,” he says. “We are saying that you want to be able to assess the situation and understand more about human interaction, be part social worker and part police officer,” he says. “It’s about saying don’t run into the room or the intersection or wherever and be the commander and do that take-charge kind of thing.”

There are four different judges in the Fairfax Diversion First stakeholder group, he says, and they all want the same thing. “They want options. They say that their job is to determine the outcome of the case before them. They want to do the right thing,” Cook says.

Already 40 percent of people detained by police officers in Fairfax now are being diverted, he says. “If we can get out of the criminal justice system this big set of people that don’t need to be there in the first place, that system works better,” Cook says. “It may take five to 10 years, but we will have a much better functioning society from a treatment standpoint, from a criminal justice standpoint, for police, for sheriffs, for human services and others,” he says. “It’s just a win-win-win all around.”

The bottom line is that crisis intervention in general, and broader stakeholder programs like Diversion First in particular, are about changing the culture of the police in this country.

How can that culture change be done efficiently and effectively? “One chief, one department at a time,” Chief Roessler says.

(May 2016)

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