At a Crisis Intervention Team training last week local law enforcement officers learned skills to help them better engage with people experiencing a mental health crisis.
This is the third year Teton County’s various law enforcement personnel have completed the course, a 40-hour training that features local and national experts on everything from personality disorders to complex crisis intervention.
The training has resparked a conversation about how mental health emergencies are handled in Teton County.
Thirty-two people from the Jackson Police Department, the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, Wyoming Highway Patrol and Grand Teton National Park graduated the course Friday and are now certified Crisis Intervention Team members, according to Acting Chief of Police Michelle Weber.
“The skills we learn [at Crisis Intervention Team training] we use weekly, if not daily,” Weber said.
Nearly all police and sheriff employees are now certified in crisis intervention, she said.
For Sgt. Kristine Sanders, a detention officer at the Teton County Jail, one of the best parts of the weeklong training was hearing from counselors at the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, who gave presentations on behavioral health, trauma and suicide prevention.
“Just learning about the different resources our community has was valuable,” Sanders told the News&Guide. “And it was interesting learning about the different ways your brain reacts to stress.”
All the topics discussed at last week’s training are hot-button issues around the country.
Recent protests over police accountability and racial justice have reignited old conversations about how police departments respond when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis.
Many activists have called for defunding the police to decrease their role in responding to such calls.
“We can do a 40-hour course, but it doesn’t make us psychologists,” Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr told the News&Guide on Monday. “But we do the CIT as kind of a stop gap because the way it is now we are generally the first on scene.”
If there’s a 911 call in Jackson for someone who is having a mental health emergency, an officer will be called to respond.
They have a few options from there, depending on the situation. They can take the person to St. John’s Health, they can call the on-call line at the counseling center and reach a therapist, they can call the person’s loved ones or a friend, or they can arrest them if a crime has happened.
“I feel really lucky that we have the resources and the partnerships we do,” Weber said.
Since 1988 the Crisis Intervention Team model has promoted “safe and humane” responses to those experiencing mental health emergencies. The model also encourages community collaboration between law enforcement and mental health and addiction professionals.
The overall goal is to give law enforcement the skills needed to help someone who’s having a mental health emergency get immediate access to medical help, rather than arresting them.
“Overall we have seen a shift in empathy within law enforcement in general,” Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center Executive Director Deidre Ashley said. “And it’s based on this understanding. Sometimes mental illness is seen as a behavior issue and understanding more about what is going on and having the skills to deal with it goes a long way.”
On Thursday at the training, which was held in the Lodge of Jackson Hole’s conference room, officers went through role-play exercises in which they had to respond to someone having a crisis.
Instructor Andy Matuszewski, a sergeant at the Lauderdale County (Mississippi) Sheriff’s Department, then gave tips on how to improve.
“Get across that you have additional training so they know you aren’t the bad guy,” he told the class. “And give people time to process what they’re hearing and let them respond.”
Matuszewski said “cop speak” is not encouraged in these types of scenarios.
“It’s our nature in law enforcement to be direct and stern,” he said. “But that isn’t the case here. Treat them like a friend.”
A relaxing posture, a soft voice, using their first name instead of rank and last name, getting level with someone’s eyes — these are all things officers learned at the training and will apply to their everyday jobs, whether it’s on patrol or at the detention center.
“Knowing different ways to talk to people to help get through to them will go a long way,” said Sgt. Sanders from the Teton County Jail.
Amid the nationwide defunding movement there have been efforts to create mobile crisis response teams, where law enforcement and mental health professionals respond to crises together.
“It is not typically something you see in smaller communities,” Weber said. “But I would love for us to take a look at a program like that.”
“We would certainly be glad to roll out at 3 a.m. with a counselor,” Carr said.
Though Weber and Carr question whether or not Teton County has the need or demand for such a team, Ashley said it depends what season it is.
“We are a small town, but our population expands and contracts with the seasons,” she said. “But we are serving commuter communities as well, from different counties and different states.”
Now that everyone is ready to have the conversation Ashley worries that pandemic-related budget cuts might make a 24/7 crisis team less realistic, at least in the near future.
She said in the end everyone at the table wants to better serve the community, especially those in crisis.
“It is a great conversation to have,” Ashley said. “I think most of the players involved all want the same thing.”