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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Extended crisis training for Spokane police the right call

Crisis intervention training for law enforcement? Of course, that’s what they do.

The crises may have changed, but an officer’s primary responsibility has always been intervention: at crime scenes, in safety emergencies, whenever nature or man threatens citizens.

But mental health issues confound the nature of many men and women, and knowing how to recognize and manage an individual experiencing a mental health crisis has become a substantial part of what police and deputies do. Society has wisely cast off institutionalization as the preferred method of dealing with individuals capable of conducting their own lives if given appropriate support and supervision.

Spokane has a constellation of agencies and nonprofits that provide those services, and many clients thrive thanks to their assistance.

Others struggle, and too often the first responders when someone reaches the breaking point are officers who have had no experience with the individual – as beat cops decades ago may have had – and too little training.

That has been changing in Spokane, first with the implementation of a 40-hour crisis intervention training program in 2002, and more recently with an enhanced version of the program that stretches the instruction out to 60 hours, and exposes officers firsthand to the experience of a population under unique stresses.

Empathy vastly improves communication. Unless someone is an immediate threat to himself or herself, or others, backing off and talking out the problem often defuses what could have been a violent incident, for officers as much as anyone else. One Spokane officer estimates 25 percent of the individuals he encounters have some mental or emotional issues.

The Spokane County Jail has become a holding facility for too many people who should be receiving treatment elsewhere.

But this is not simple stuff.

The CIT course materials originally developed in 2004 are a 262-page compilation of text, drawings and illustrations that cover the most common kinds of mental disabilities and how best to contend with those conditions. There is similar information regarding drug abuse symptoms, even how different populations and cultures regard manifestations of mental illness and their readiness to bring forward relatives who might have a problem.

Some of the information that officers mention is puzzling, like how methadone, which has been around for 50 years, affects patients.

The 2006 beating and suffocation death of Otto Zehm underscored the need for more training in dealing with individuals who might be exhibiting unusual but not threatening behavior, lessons every member of society could use. The 2012 Use of Force report reinforced the call for better responses.

The cost of enhanced training for every officer is, within the constraints of city and county resources, unaffordable. The Spokane Police Department’s goal to put one officer who has taken the course on each shift is a good one. Spokane County has to step up to the enhanced program, or potentially create a crisis that endangers a deputy or citizen.