7Investigates: Police Mental Health Crisis Training

A mentally ill person in crisis, and police officers are called to the scene. The results can be tragic.

7Investigates went inside the police training that experts say is saving lives.

Police officers protect and serve. But more and more, they’re being asked to defuse and diagnose as they respond to dangerous mental health crises.

“Police now are kind of the bridge of getting these people the help they need,” said Andover Police Chief Patrick Keefe.

In Andover, half of the calls police respond to are mental-health related. In the few cases where those calls also involve weapons, the results can be tragic.

“Being a police officer in these times is dangerous,” said Det. Sgt. Mark Higginbottom, an Andover police officer who often leads Crisis Intervention Team training.

It’s a week-long course for police, and it may be one of the keys to avoiding harm to the person, police, and the public.

7Investigates was there for training sessions, where actors portray mentally ill people in intense role-playing scenarios.

“They’re the first officer on scene when this person is in crisis,” Higginbottom said.

“Somehow, they have to de-escalate the situation,” Keefe said.

Psychiatrists and other experts teach the officers from across Massachusetts how to spot certain mental illnesses and the best ways to calm the person down, assess their symptoms, and get them the help they need.

The scenarios include actors portraying a homeless woman with autism, a mother threatening suicide, and a woman who locked herself in a bathroom at work. Officers learn to slow down the situation and build rapport with the person in crisis.

“We talk a lot about tone – the way to communicate,” Higginbottom said.

More than 1,500 Massachusetts officers have been trained in the last five years. Experts say it’s saving lives.

“If we can come out of this that all parties are in a safe way, then that’s a win,” Higginbottom said.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, which funds the program, when trained officers are called to a scene, 90 percent of the time, the person in crisis is sent to treatment instead of being arrested.

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