Police officers, agencies train for response to people in crisis

lfalce@centredaily.comMarch 14, 2014 

A man is wandering around his neighborhood, seeming belligerent and aggressive. Someone calls 911. The police are dispatched. What happens next?

A few years ago, police might have arrested the man, maybe taken him to jail or involuntarily committed him for a psychiatric evaluation. On Friday, however, officers and agencies from all over Pennsylvania were in State College learning how to recognize a person in crisis and resolve situations in new ways.

The Centre County Crisis Intervention Team partners police with other providers, such as emergency medical services, mental health providers, community service agencies, corrections officers and more, to network services and information to help individuals in need.

“CIT is becoming more popular statewide,” said Centre County coordinator Tracy Small. “The goal is to help police officers have a better understanding of mental illness and be more informed of community resources.”

So instead of taking the belligerent man to jail, officers are being trained to have a conversation to find out if he has a problem. Did he stop taking medication? Is he a diabetic whose blood sugar level is too high? Did he just lose a loved one and doesn’t know how to cope?

“We want to put this person in touch with someone. We want to take a proactive step before it ends up in the criminal justice system,” said State College police Detective Chris Weaver.

The nature of the Centre Region’s cooperation between departments makes it easier to share information, said Ferguson Township police Sgt. R.W. Glenny.

“If it weren’t for the collaboration, we wouldn’t survive,” he said. “This is community-oriented policing at its best.”

The potential consequences are seen all over, said Weaver, from massive tragedies like the shooting of young children and school employees at Newtown, Conn., to smaller examples that might hit closer to home.

In September, former Centre County resident Kenneth Sprankle was shot by police in St. Petersburg, Fla., after taking drugs and becoming violent, chasing people with an ax. Sprankle was someone the CIT team had been in contact with over the years, learning how to handle his issues and what help he needed. When he moved to Florida, however, authorities didn’t have that kind of history with him.

Glenny is quick to point out that had the situation gotten to the same point with Sprankle in Centre County, the result might have been the same, with public safety the first concern. His hope, however, is that earlier contacts might have given them a clue that something was happening and given them the chance for some kind of intervention before the situation escalated.

The local CIT was started in 2011. The first statewide training in State College was held in 2013.

“Last year, we had seven counties show up. This year, we have 18,” said Small.

The team just received a $69,000 grant to continue developing the program and training people for the next two years. So far, seven training sessions have been held for county providers, with 164 individuals now prepared to give crisis services.

“We will probably never know how many incidents we may have prevented,” said Weaver. “I know that we have prevented multiple police contacts. I know we have.”

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