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Police Learn The Art Of De-escalating Mental Crises

New recruits from the Salt Lake and West Valley City police departments took part in a de-escalation training this week focused on people experiencing a mental health crisis. The training was a way to equip new officers with tools to deal with a common problem in Utah.  

At the training, Randi Thomas, a new officer recruit, entered a conference room where a woman stood next to a turned over trashcan. Papers were scattered around the ground and she gripped another stack in her hand. She said a neighbor was recording her with video cameras.

"Let’s get this figured out for you," Thomas said. "How many cameras have you seen in here?" 

"I told you there’s at least eight and like I said, they’re infrared," the woman said frantically. "Right now they can see us and you’re going to be on it. And you’re going to be on it if you don’t do something about it." 

"This is the documentation that he gave to you?" Thomas asked, gesturing to the papers. 

"No, I’ve been writing that down. That’s proof right there."

Thomas was doing a scenario with Jessica Jeffs, a social worker with the Salt Lake City Police Department.

After a few tense moments, the scene ended and therapists debriefed with a half dozen recruits who were watching the scenario about what triggered the woman.

"So what’s going on here in this situation?" asked Jessica Waters, another department therapist. "What did she escalate on whenever you asked her? Pills? Doctors? Therapists?" 

Over the week, 21 new recruits were in this Crisis Intervention Training. It included de-escalation techniques for people experiencing mental health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia.

Jeffs, the social worker in the role-play, deals with situations like this every day and said it’s important for officers to get trained too.

"Not getting this training, I think they may overreact to the situation. They may see something as a potential danger when it’s not," Jeffs said. 

She believes de-escalation trainings like this will prevent officer shootings. As a department, patrol officers in Salt Lake City deal with about ten mental health calls per day, according to staff.   

Around Salt Lake City, long wait times for therapists and a lack of inpatient beds are ongoing problems, according to mental health advocates.

Randi Thomas, the new recruit in the scenario, said the week-long training was a big learning experience for her.

"You can think what if a million times over but until you’re actually in the situation or even just a small scenario that’s controlled, you never know exactly how you’re going to react."

This training is giving future officers like her a plan when it happens.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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