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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane police host crisis-intervention training to prepare for mental health calls; ‘It makes it much more real’

UPDATED: Wed., July 21, 2021

Officers tested their de-escalation tactics during mock scenarios that replicated mental health calls during a crisis intervention training program put on by the Spokane Police Department on Wednesday afternoon.

The department started these trainings about 20 years ago, and continues to change scenarios to fit modern understanding of mental illness and substance abuse, said Sgt. Jay Kernkamp of the Spokane Police Department.

“We bring in actors to where they’re able to try to put into use what they’ve learned by showing empathy to those individuals in crisis,” Kernkamp said.

The actors came from Frontier Behavioral Health, said Kernkamp, who on a daily basis treat individuals with mental and behavioral health challenges. This informs how the pre-scripted scenarios play out for the trainees, as they’re also based on real incidents officers experienced, he said.

Trainees ranged from first-year cadets to longtime patrol officers from the Spokane Police Department, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Valley PD, Kernkamp said.

Austin Neale, a patrol officer with the Spokane Police Department, said he took the training before but decided to take it again to reflect the changing mental health landscape.

“It’s always evolving, so you have to be able to recognize those struggles that we maybe didn’t know about a few decades ago,” Neale said.

Neale took part in a scenario in which a Frontier professional acted as a veteran experiencing post-traumatic stress and combat flashbacks.

“Mental health calls happen really regularly, they’re probably some of most frequent calls we get, so this is very accurate to what I’ve seen,” Neale said.

For Katelyn Baxter, a Washington State Patrol officer, the scenarios bring the situation into stark reality. She had not participated in the role-play before, but had sat through courses to hear from experts who have.

“You can look at something like that on paper and it’s kind of like, ‘whatever,’ but then you see it here and it makes it much more real,” Baxter said.

Kernkamp said Spokane police employ many de-escalation tactics on-scene that may seem small but make a big difference in how the situation changes. Every call is different, he said, and officers often work with the unknown rather than what they do know about a scenario.

The scenarios are meant to show trainees how to handle a dangerous situation not through direct confrontation or forceful arrests, but by offering substance abuse disorder counseling or a detox, Kernkamp said.

“A large portion of our calls for service are generated by behavioral health issues of individuals in crisis where they have increased emotion and decreased reasoning, based upon either drug-induced or alcohol-induced, or both,” Kernkamp said. “If we can have a safe outcome, that’s a win for everybody … Unfortunately, it’s not always going to end that way. And we are here to enforce the law.”

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