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UNT Police train to handle mental health crises

UNT Police train to handle mental health crises

A University of North Texas Police squad car sits outside of the Sullivant Safety Center. Dylan Nadwodny | Staff Photographer

UNT Police train to handle mental health crises
September 27
21:48 2017

Through accreditation by two agencies, special training, constant communication with other departments and a close relationship with the local mental health authority, UNT Police are working to ensure their department can properly handle mental health crises on campus.

“Having [mental health] training is a good opportunity,” retired captain Jim Coffey said. “It allows us to quickly identify special mental issues with people and create understanding between them and the officers.”

UNT Police Chief Ed Reynolds said the department communicates daily with the Dean of Students and the counseling center as part of the Care Team, a group of faculty members across campus who identify and help students in crisis or danger.

Reynolds, who has been on the team since it began, said police are frequently the first responders for calls about someone in need of immediate help. He said early intervention is the key to helping students who are struggling.

“Our role is to review cases where we have an individual that may present a threat to themselves or others,” Reynolds said. “Most of those we deal with is someone who has threatened self-harm. Our role is to get them the help they need.”

Every officer in Texas receives Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) while in the police academy or within the first year of working in the field. UNT police are trained by instructors from Counseling and Testing Services on campus, Denton County MHMR or UNT officers with a mental health certification. Some officers travel the state or country to receive additional training.

Captain David Owen said a “significant portion” of calls related to mental illness also involve suicide, so all officers go through CIT before and throughout their careers. The training is required to take place at least every two years, but it is typically an annual event covering new topics.

Owens said this year’s training focused on conflict de-escalation and learning specific symptoms for a variety of mental illnesses.

Coffey, who retired and now works part-time with the department, said they learn about disorders from schizophrenia to depression. He said the latter is the most common.

“The fact is that in college there’s a lot of stress,” Coffey said. “The work for each class and deadlines complicate a situation that’s already very complicated for people with mental health issues.”

To guarantee the department follows the highest and most comprehensive standards for police, the UNT Police Department remains accredited through the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), each with their own requirements and assessments every three years.

The accreditation agencies do not mandate specific procedures, but they do look at what is practiced and the extent to which it succeeds in the environment. They do, however, require departments to have procedures for specific circumstances.

CALEA has 294 standards to be met, one of which is how to approach “persons suspected of suffering from mental illnesses.” Nothing further is specified.

IACLEA requires departments to have a written directive that “establishes procedures for handling mentally ill individuals” affiliated or not with the university. This directive must include the process of accessing and referring individuals to mental health resources, initial and refresher training related to mental health crises, as well as how to recognize indicators.

IACLEA also has a requirement for behavioral threat assessments, meaning those who pose a threat to themselves or others and identifying their violence potential to determine necessary treatment.

These mandates are met through the department’s presence on the Care Team, the annual training and working with MHMR.

“We take our procedures and give it to our Dean of Students or Counseling and Testing Services to say ‘Hey, can you look at this? Does this meet the needs our community?’” Reynolds said. “We know what the standard says and we know what the state and federal requirements are for training. But when you get done with that we try to get the stakeholders to look at our policy to make sure what we’re doing is correct.”

Corporal Craig Simons received his Mental Health Peace Officer training in June 2016 from the Denton County Sheriff’s Mental Health Investigative Unit. He said he has always been fascinated by the “science of individual behavior” and has an undergraduate degree in psychology.

“The training mainly consisted of understanding various mental health conditions, and numerous people came in to speak with us about what they struggle with,” Simons said of the 40-hour, five-day course. “We also went through mental health crisis scenarios and were trained on what the Health and Safety Code says about mental health detentions.”

Although Simons has not been in the situation where his training is necessary, he still believes it was a good investment.

“I do have a greater sense of empathy for people suffering from mental illness,” Simons said. “I feel more prepared if the need should arise involving a mental health call.”

He said he and his fellow officers have been asked to take individuals from Counseling and Testing Services to MHMR for evaluation. The escort and treatment are voluntary and thus not usually dangerous, but he said there is still an “unpredictable element” when mental illnesses are involved.

Owen said because of this possibility, officers have to use their training and experience to find the appropriate actions for a particular situation.

“Our officers are responding using their best judgment,” Owen said. “Not everybody can respond the same way, so we are not dependent on a step-by-step process.”

The UNT Police 60-day crime log shows five reported incidents of someone having a mental health crisis, all in September.

Although there is no follow-up with the officers once the person is taken to a treatment center, Coffey said the interaction they do have is still crucial. He said the most effective approach any officer can take is to listen.

“It’s not always natural for us to listen but it’s the most important,” Coffey said. “When we start interacting it escalates the situation, so when we listen, you get to the cause of what’s happening.”

Reynolds, Simons and Owen all echoed the same sentiment – they want to use mental health training as a way to better serve the campus and help students struggling as best they can. When they help someone in a crisis, especially those who are suicidal, their number one priority is to keep everyone safe.

“Nothing is worth leaving this earth for,” Coffey said. “No matter how bad it gets, tomorrow can always be better.”

Featured Image: File

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Bianca Mujica

Bianca Mujica

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