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Local officers prioritizing crisis intervention

Law enforcement looking to help people struggling with mental health

Through specialized training, local law enforcement officers are learning how to understand and safely de-escalate situations involving individuals undergoing a mental health crisis.

It’s an important element for police officers, especially as the nation’s attention during the last few years has been focused on excessive use of force resulting in injuries and death to people experiencing such a breakdown.

“It’s critical for law enforcement and first responders to recognize when someone is having a mental health crisis,” said Officer Daniel Marguccio, coordinator of the Laurel Highlands Region Police Crisis Intervention Team, which serves Bedford, Cambria and Somerset counties.

“If we are able to determine that someone is having a crisis and is not a criminal, it completely changes how we approach the situation,” Marguccio said.

As long as individuals are not causing immediate harm to themselves or others, Marguccio said police are approaching the situation with patience and understanding.

Police will investigate why the person is in a rage or having an outburst, and if it is determined that the person is undergoing a mental crisis, officers will connect with the person and “show empathy toward their situation,” Marguccio said.

Many people who have mental health conditions such as schizophrenia may have hallucinations or see imaginary objects.

To control the situation and help calm the individual, police will acknowledge the situation and tell the person they understand that they may see something, but officers will then attempt to rationalize with them and explain how nobody else is able to see what the patient sees.

“We approach the situation a lot differently,” Marguccio said. “Normally, we will have several officers arrive on scene that try to detain the person. But in a mental crisis situation, we will have one officer trained in CIT to have one-on-one interaction with the patient. We don’t want more people there, because that will only overwhelm them.”

Marguccio said the personal interaction almost always helps the individual calm down, and once the situation is controlled, they are then directed to mental health professionals for further treatment.

During the Crisis Intervention Training, officers learn how an individual’s mind and mental status is altered when they are in a mental health crisis. Marguccio said oftentimes, the individual doesn’t understand what is happening.

Individuals in these instances may take longer to process new information, and if that person is being asked a series of questions by an officer, they could still be trying to process the first question when an officer is on the fourth or fifth question.

People in crisis are likely unaware of the implications that come from their failure to respond to an officer as expected, resulting in the individual being viewed as non-compliant or resisting arrest

As a result, officers may employ force to de-escalate the situation.

But while force can be used to subdue suspects, it is ineffective and unnecessary for people in crisis, Marguccio said.

“People in a crisis need patience and understanding,” Marguccio said. “They’re not processing what is happening.”

They “simply just aren’t in the right state of mind,” he said.

Marguccio said the Laurel Highlands Region Police CIT formed in 2006 to provide training to law enforcement officers about how to deal with someone having a mental health crisis.

Much of the training teaches officers how to identify the signs of a crisis and help calm the situation while providing the individual with proper care.

Help not incarceration

Most individuals who are identified as having a mental health crisis are not incarcerated, Marguccio said, with the person instead being admitted to local medical facilities to receive psychological evaluation or medications.

Sending a person who suffers a mental health crisis to jail is ineffective, Cambria County President Commissioner Tom Chernisky said.

If police are called to respond to the scene of a mental health crisis, Chernisky said those individuals don’t need a prison sentence, rather they need medical support and therapy.

“What good are we doing if we put these people in jail instead of getting them the help they need,” asked Chernisky, who also recently trained in crisis intervention.

“These individuals are going to sit in jail, which is already unnecessary, and when their sentence is over, they’re being put back into society without ever getting the help they needed,” he said. Remanding a person to prison who should be a patient versus a suspect is also costly for local jurisdictions, Marguccio said, noting that the costs of court fees, officer payroll and prison expenses could total more than $10,000.

“We’re simply wasting taxpayer dollars by locking these people up in jail,” Chernisky said.

CIT has become a growing trend in the area, with a vast majority of police departments in Bedford, Blair and Cambria counties having a full staff of officers with the training to deal with a mental health crisis.

The majority of officers at the Altoona Police Department are trained in crisis intervention and are equipped to defuse situations involving those with a mental health condition, according to Sgt. Matthew Plummer.

“We update our training in crisis intervention, and I think it helps that a lot of our officers receive on-the-job training too,” Plummer said. “We deal with this a lot, and I think our officers have learned to be patient and how to handle situations like this.”

Plummer said the Altoona Police Department works closely with the mobile crisis unit at UPMC Altoona, adding that the department also focuses on building rapport with those in the community who suffer from mental illness.

Familiarity with people as individuals has helped law enforcement de-escalate some situations, Marguccio said, adding that a familiar friendly face is sometimes all it takes to calm and comfort a person in crisis.

Marguccio has experienced that himself as he was once able to talk a person out of jumping off a bridge due to their familiarity with each other.

“It helps big time whenever you have that rapport with someone and they know your face,” Plummer said. “We work so hard to be out in our community for positive situations because if a crisis happens and they see someone they recognize, they could become more comfortable.”

While officers continue to develop their skills in crisis intervention, Marguccio said the public plays an important role as well.

If an individual in public appears to be undergoing a mental crisis, Marguccio said it is imperative to provide the individual space and not intervene, which could only escalate the situation.

Marguccio also urges anyone calling 911 for help to notify dispatchers if they believe the situation involves a mental health patient.

“These are innocent people,” Marguccio said. “Just be patient with them. … These people need our help.”

Mirror Staff Writer Calem Illig is at 814-946-7535.

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