Spokane police course focuses on mental health crisis
A man with a history of mental illness is allegedly breaking into his neighbor’s apartment at all hours of the day, stealing items and causing a headache for the landlord. He faces eviction in 10 days, and police have been called to check on the man’s well-being and persuade him to seek medical help.
It’s a situation that could play out anywhere in Spokane. On Wednesday afternoon, the scenario faced members of the city’s police force as part of the department’s pledge to train all officers in crisis intervention by March.
“The officers are going through this training to experience what it’s like for people that are in mental health crisis, and to see it from a different view,” said Spokane police Sgt. Anthony Giannetto, who is overseeing the training.
Department personnel are taking the 40-hour program in waves, with all members of the force expected to have completed the weeklong class within the next few months. Spokane police committed to training all of its officers in crisis intervention as part of the settlement in a civil suit filed after the death of Otto Zehm, a janitor with mental illness who died after a confrontation with police in 2006. The training was also one of 23 recommendations made by Mayor David Condon’s Use of Force Commission, convened in the wake of the Zehm incident and other allegations of excessive force.
Wednesday’s scenario, one of seven run simultaneously at the Spokane Police Training Academy, began with a quick briefing from Officer Kellee Gately, who briefed the team of three officers and one mental health professional in the hallway. Playing the part of the mentally ill man was Senior Officer Gordon Grant, a 26-year veteran of the force. Two other actors portrayed the apartment manager and neighbor, who were present inside the apartment.
“I want them out of my house!” Grant repeatedly yelled, pointing at the apartment manager and neighbor. The officers attempted to keep Grant separate from the two and avoid further confrontation. While the counselor and officers attempted to make a diagnosis and get Grant to leave the room willingly, Gately and Harry Rosenkrantz, a mental health professional with Frontier Behavioral Health, scribbled notes.
At the end of the encounter, after Grant was persuaded to leave the room, the two offered comments on the team’s performance, from the questions that were asked down to how officers positioned themselves during the encounter. Gately praised one of the officers for keeping his cool as Grant led him by the hand across the classroom.
“I could tell you were uncomfortable with it,” Gately said.
At the end of each class session, officers are evaluated on their performance and asked for input on how to improve the program, Giannetto said. In addition, the department is trying to incorporate ideas from other forces across the country in how they handle crisis intervention training by meeting with trainers from other cities, he said.
The goal is to translate the lessons learned in the classroom into the field, as the department seeks to approach confrontations with an understanding of the mental health issues that afflict many members of the public, Giannetto said.
The lesson Wednesday was the power of persuasion, supervisor Gately said.
“It’s really just using your skills, to convince him that he wants to go,” Gately told the team. “Because it’s really his choice.”