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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Police training in crisis intervention paying off

The man on the Monroe Street Bridge railing waved his arms. He shouted and gestured at the police officers trying to talk him down. He stripped off his coat. He swayed, shifted from foot to foot, walked along the railing, peered down at the rocks and rushing Spokane River. On occasion, he appeared to be dancing, but there was nothing joyous here.

He was threatening to jump. A resident of a downtown mental health care facility, the man has a history of mental illness and had reached a breaking point, and the members of the Spokane Police Department were trying to get him off that railing safely. Finally, about 90 minutes later, Officer Davida Zinkgraf reached out her hand, and the man took it and stepped down. He went into the care of Frontier Behavioral Health.

It was the best possible ending. It was also the kind of police work that sometimes goes overlooked and unappreciated. More than four times a day, on average, Spokane police officers are called out to deal with suicide threats. A new wave of training efforts is helping officers improve at dealing with the challenges of the mentally ill and suicidal, Chief Frank Straub said. But training isn’t everything.

“I think our officers show tremendous empathy, and that’s huge,” Straub said. “Whether it’s the bridge situation or the call … where an individual had drenched himself and his family with gasoline, when you’re confronted with these people, they’re at the last stage of hope.”

In the past two years, police have answered more than 50 calls of people threatening to jump from the bridge. Though the numbers fluctuate, it’s an unfortunately common scenario – but it’s also a relatively small piece of a much bigger problem. Over the past decade, Spokane County has struggled with high rates of suicide and attempted suicide. Between 2004 and 2009, the county’s rate of suicide and attempts were higher than Washington’s overall rate – much higher in some categories. Over that time period, about 300 people per year were hospitalized for suicide attempts, and 70 people a year died by their own hand, according to Spokane Regional Health District statistics.

In the last few years, the county’s suicide rate has dipped downward – perhaps the result of concentrated efforts at prevention and intervention through the health district, police, nonprofits, schools and other organizations. In 2011, Spokane County’s suicide rate was 13.5 per 100,000 residents, slightly below the state rate and slightly above the national.

Nevertheless, problems of mental illness and suicide are prevalent in Spokane; they strain the limits of the system to provide sufficient care. Often, the problem finds its resolution in the county jail, which is no kind of solution. Straub said that communitywide, Spokane needs to examine whether we’re doing all we can to help the mentally ill.

Wednesday’s scare encapsulated many of the challenges associated with the issue. It also coincided with a new push within the SPD to better train officers to deal with mentally ill people in crisis. That training, known as Crisis Intervention Training, comes out of the recommendations of the Use of Force Commission, which arose from the Otto Zehm case.

More than half of the department has now undergone the weeklong CIT program – which involves sessions with local mental health professionals, mock training scenarios, and conversations with mentally ill people. By early next year, every member of the department is on schedule to complete it.

“That is very unique, to have an entire department, especially a 300-some member department, go through CIT training,” Straub said.

SPD officers are also meeting regularly with a team of mental health professionals in the community. It’s part of a new emphasis in the past year of collaborations across institutional boundaries in the social services. Part of the SPD collaboration includes working with researchers at Washington State University on training scenarios for dealing with people under a wide range of crises – a program that Straub hopes can eventually be offered to other departments.

On Wednesday, almost every officer on the bridge had undergone the CIT training, Straub said – and some of them just last week. That included Zinkgraf, who was the primary negotiator, along with Capt. Joe Walker, Sgt. Tony Giannetto, Officer Kellee Gately, Officer John O’Brien, Sgt. Dan Waters and others. During the time the man was on the railing, there was little to be done but try and persuade him to come down. Officers could not get anything underneath him; they could not grab him before he’d have time to step off onto the rocks and river below.

They had to rely on the tactics of persuasion and empathy: listening, calming, offering alternatives and resources, building trust and rapport.

“It really comes down to the skill of the officers,” Straub said, “and the way they’re working to create that bond.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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