San Mateo County emergency responders receive training to better work with mentally ill 

A program at the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office is teaching law enforcement officers and first responders how to address situations involving people with mental illnesses.

The Crisis Intervention Training academy works to bridge the gap between crime fighters and health care providers by helping police understand how to de-escalate encounters with mentally ill individuals and get them the help they need. The program’s 17th class graduated this month.

“We’ve changed a lot of attitudes [in law enforcement], not only about dealing with the consumer, but dealing with a lot of folks in the mental health bureaucracy,” said Jim Coffman, deputy sheriff and coordinator of Crisis Intervention Training. “Clinicians and cops don’t always mix, even though we have the same goal in mind.”

Coffman co-teaches the course with partners from San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group. Experts also speak on a variety of subjects.

The seminar covers 40 hours in total and follows a weeklong curriculum used nationwide in similar programs. Attendees study the signs, symptoms and treatments of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.

They then learn the best practices for how a person arriving at a scene should approach an individual in crisis, including those who are considered violent or appear to be attempting “suicide by cop.”

“We never get calls when people are having a good day,” Coffman said.

“If you’re talking to someone that’s hearing voices, it’s going to take a little time to get through those voices loud enough so they can hear what you’re saying,” Coffman said. “Just another voice yelling at them is not going to work.”

He added, “Once the police get there, there is a certain level of control that we have to get before we can do our job.”

Aside from tips on how to deal with various encounters, students leave equipped with a list of mental health resources in the county.

Their work in the field may need to involve coordinating with clinicians in the county’s mobile support unit and at psychiatric emergency services. They also sometimes conduct follow-up visits with individuals and their families post-release from treatment facilities.

Within the Sheriff’s Office, which initiates about four to six involuntary psychiatric commitments per week, roughly 200 deputies are already CIT-certified, by Coffman’s estimates.

The course is open to first responders of any sort, including police officers and dispatchers, sheriff’s deputies and correctional officers, as well as private paramedics and security officers who contract with the county.

Though the CIT academy is not yet part of California’s mandated training for peace officers, some have suggested at the state level that the training should be incorporated into the police academy, according to Coffman.

For now, most participants volunteer or are encouraged by their superiors to attend, with their agencies footing the $250 bill.

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S. Parker Yesko

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