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Officers to be trained in dealing with mentally ill

Denise Hackel, left, president of the St. Croix Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and Linda Flanders, coordinator of the Pierce County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (PCCJCC), showed a manual Thursday about Crisis Intervention Training for dealing with mentally ill people. (Herald photo by Bill Kirk)

Often first at the scene of a crisis, police officers don’t always have the skills necessary to deal with mentally ill people.

That’s the premise behind a series of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) sessions being prepared for law enforcement personnel in Pierce County. The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (PCCJCC), in cooperation with the St. Croix Valley chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC), is organizing the sessions, which may begin as early as next year.

“Mental illness is a brain disease, so it’s a medical disease,” Linda Flanders, PCCJCC coordinator, said Thursday, though indicating it’s not widely regarded as such.

“It’s just that it manifests itself in different behaviors,” added Denise Hackel, president of NAMI’s St. Croix Valley chapter, acknowledging the stigma suppressing discussion of the condition.

While those with mental illness might not have a noticeably different appearance (identified as an issue for police), if officers recognize their condition the outcome of a crisis situation in which they’re involved could be turned from negative to positive, according to the pair of organizers. For its part, Flanders said a goal of the PCCJCC is to have these situations de-escalated on-scene and hopefully be able to reduce the involvement of the criminal justice system thereafter.

“It’s so important to set it right from the start,” she said. The use of reason or applying power doesn’t work with the mentally ill, Hackel reminded.

The PCCJCC has seriously examined the matter of law enforcement’s interactions with mentally ill people for the past year or so, Flanders said. Initially, a full training package for officers was advocated, but limited resources meant it likely couldn’t be made available to all. Instead, a condensed version will be presented, possible through the use of devices including video, and all officers in the county will indeed get some training.

“We wanted it to be mandatory,” she said, explaining PCCJCC members realized mental illness isn’t necessarily high on an officer’s priority list, what with terrorism exercises, gun range practice and the like on their agendas. Many don’t even know about NAMI, Hackel understood.

For more please read the Oct. 30 print version of the Herald. 

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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