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Police, behavioral health workers gather in Seattle to talk crisis response

(KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)

From people dealing with the effects of drug-addiction to those in the midst of a psychotic breakdown, police around the globe are dealing with the “new normal” of being on the frontlines of the growing behavioral health crisis.

Addressing those needs is the focus of a three-day crisis intervention team conference underway in Seattle.

More than 1,200 police, corrections staff, mental health workers, and advocates are expected at this week’s annual CIT International conference, held in Seattle this year.

“This conference brings together some of the best and brightest in the field for communities addressing the needs of those with mental illnesses, addiction and other special needs to improve services and reduce unnecessary incarceration, injury or death,” stated Tom von Hemert, President of CIT International. “The CIT Program promotes safety and smart justice.”

It’s a concept Seattle police have embraced for years with their Crisis Intervention Team, made up of a group of officers specially trained on how to spot signs of crisis and how to deal with it.

“Crisis intervention is very indicative of what the population is offering, so it’s very regionally based,” said Sgt. Dan Nelson, who leads the Seattle Police Department’s crisis intervention program. “It depends on how many funds you’re receiving from the federal government, how many funds you’re receiving from the state government, and then how many local dollars. How are you weaving and braiding those together to come up with your total offerings to the folks in your community.”

“There’s a lot of different ways to cut the pie, and so we just come here and bounce ideas off each other and learn, and try and take something back to our community,” Nelson added.

The CIT program focuses on more than just recognizing the signs of someone in crisis.

“More importantly how are we interacting with these folks and how are we leveraging our community resources? King County is very well positioned, we have a lot of great community-based organizations that provide these crisis services, a lot of them geared specifically toward first responders,” Nelson said pointing to a programs such as the mobile crisis unit and others funded with the county’s MIDD fund, a 0.1 percent countywide sales tax, which specifically pays for programs for people dealing with behavioral health issues.

Nelson says figuring out how to best use these resources is a top priority for Seattle police, who are on the front lines of the behavioral health crisis.

“When somebody sees someone who is behavioral on the side of the road they call 9-1-1, that’s just the way it is,” Nelson explained. “We are oftentimes the first responders to people in the middle of a psychiatric crisis.”

“It’s extremely important that when we arrive we identify the signs and symptoms and that we have tools to be able to interact with them safely, and have a heightened understanding of what are we going to do with this person, what are the needs this person is demonstrating in the community and how can we best support that,” Nelson added.

The key, he says, is respect.

“It’s huge. We have to make sure that we’re treating everyone with equity and dignity, treating everyone fairly, treating people how we want to be treated ourselves, “Nelson said.

“It’s all about building a rapport because more than likely we’re going to have multiple contacts with this person so it’s important to treat them right, so they can get the services that they need,” he added.

Nelson says the SPD’s crisis intervention team has done great work.

“They’re identifying the behavior, they’re interacting with them, de-escalating them finding a workable solution for them us while ensuring public safety and leveraging community supports,” Nelson said.

“It’s a very complex proposition, especially when people are in that acute level of crisis, sometimes they’re armed, sometimes they’re not armed, most the time they are behavioral so we ask a lot of our officers to go out there and keep everyone safe,” Nelson continued.

He admits there are gaps, especially surrounding prolific or repeat offenders continually cycling in and out of the system.

“There are criteria for involuntarily hospitalizing folks for a mental health evaluation, treatment,” Nelson explained. “Then there’s the other realm where somebody’s been charged with a crime but they have to be competent to stand trial, they have to be able to aid in their own defense. The gap is, just because somebody’s not competent to stand trial it doesn’t necessarily mean that detention criteria, so we have a gap in the system.”

It can be challenging for officers.

“At times, it can be extremely frustrating because you’re dealing with the same people over, and over, and over again. We just gotta work through it and identify a different solution,” Nelson said.

Additional solutions and creative ideas from other jurisdictions are what SPD hopes to take away from the conference, while also sharing some of its own best practices.

As for what SPD’s CIT team needs, Nelson says continued collaboration with the mental health community, more accurate budgets for community mental health so they have places to send people like prolific offenders, and more volunteers who want to do this kind of police work.

At the conference, CIT International released its first comprehensive guide to best practices for crisis intervention teams, which can be found here.

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