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Mental Health Focus of Riverside Public Department Training

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Part II of II

By Mary Shelton

Det. Dennis Dodson, who works in the department's domestic violence division wore a smile that brimmed his face as he described his feelings about the class afterward.

What resonated for him was what one instructor said about the importance of establishing a rapport with a mentally ill person. One way to do that was to address the person by his or her name, a point which made an impression on Dodson. The reasoning behind this was because many mentally ill people experience auditory hallucinations and it is difficult for them to even hear the voice of a police officer issuing them orders to follow.  Dodson paired up with Sgt. Jaybee Brennan on a training scenario and Brennan accessed a notebook from the "daughter" to learn clues about the situation from what was inside of it.

Other officers off the record said that the class taught them skills that were useful, provided information that they did not know. Several were skeptical but still found elements of the course which impressed them. One popular component was the mental health panel which presented them with the opportunities to hear and question individuals who had dealt with mental illness or had family members who did.

One of the members of the panel which was provided by the Jefferson Wellness Center in Riverside hoped that police officers would take one message from him out into the field with them.

"I am not my diagnosis," Fred Lex, who has Bipolar Disorder, told the class of 30 officers and one journalist, "I am an individual."

The officers gained some insight into what goes on inside the mind of a mentally ill person who is hearing "voices" through an exercise that was introduced at a conference in Memphis, Tennesseee. Wearing headphones which played voices which were alternatively grandiose and persecutory, they performed exercises like following directions and talking to groups of people about the training it took to become a police officer.

What is usually easy became much more difficult.

Afterward, many of them took away some understanding of why it was so difficult for mentally ill individuals to process their commands let alone follow them.

The training made a large impression on one particular officer, according to the department and that was Officer David Bartlone who after he took the training, put it to use out in the field. One individual he encountered wrote a letter to the police department about that experience. Bartlone dropped by his home to check on him and discovered that the individual had no utilities, food or money. Barlone showed up again the next day with enough food, water and supplies to help him for a long time, the letter stated.

"As important as those supplies were, the understanding and compassion that he showed towards my situation meant even more. He claimed he was just doing his job, but I believe what he did for me was more than that. The extra effort that he made is what made such a huge impression on me," stated the individual in his letter.

Department representatives said they had talked to Bartlone and he had cited the training program as his inspiration for the actions he had taken with this individual. For one thing, the training taught him to be able to find and access resources available for people and to connect people in the communities with those resources.

The crisis intervention training is run out of the department's personnel and training division, which started creating the program in 2006 after researching different models used in other cities and counties. The police department created its own training program which received POST certification in the summer of 2007 and started training first officers who it felt would provide extensive feedback on the course material including members of the Riverside Police Officers' Association safety committee, according to Blakely. Since then, there's been one course held monthly and the department's training has generated interest in other nearby law enforcement agencies who have asked to send representatives to attend the training.

Officer Erik Lindgren, who works in the department's personnel and training division explained what he had learned through his own experiences dealing with mentally ill individuals out in the field, and all the times he had driven to the intake facility to 51/50 a mentally ill individual. Now, he plays a critical role in the process of implementing the training, a role he's embraced.

The tour of the intake facility called simply "The Place" provided many of the officers the opportunity to visit and learn about areas of the center that they had never seen in all their trips there, and the questions asked about its operations were many. Most of them had never been past the lobby of a facility that appeared larger on the inside than from the outside.

As promising as the future looks in mental health intervention for the Riverside Police Department, the budget picture, particularly that involving Riverside County, is not as promising. It is possible that the program might lose several key instructors from the county's mental health departments if the county cuts its expenditures involving mental health. The new pilot team program which is scheduled to begin this summer has received funding for the next fiscal budget year. Several officers who had shared their opinions about the training urged community members to keep pushing for it to continue.

The budget picture for the fledgling program became only somewhat clearer in a meeting held by several city council members who have been receiving periodic updates on the new training.

At the May 19 Public Safety Committee meeting, Councilman Andrew Melendrez asked questions about its future given the budget crises at nearly every level of government. Capt. Mike Blakely had told the committee that out of the department's 395 police officers, about 212 had received the training as well as two dispatchers. All employees who interfaced with the public would also be taking the training, he said.

An update was also provided to committee members on the upcoming pilot team program, a process that Asst. John De La Rosa said was "so far very successful". He added that the department plans to eventually add another training program focusing on the handling of "excited delirium" cases.

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