First responders train at Berkshire Community College to respond to crises

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PITTSFIELD

The disheveled woman had a borderline personality and "abandonment issues."

She appeared intoxicated on alcohol and possibly drugs, and said she'd just broken up with her boyfriend. The woman also came on to each of the responders in a sexual manner. Her intent, however, was to provide the first responders with a tense domestic situation to deal with.

Barby Cardillo is an actor with the Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe, and her story was part of an act. She participated during the final session of a weeklong, 40-hour training program that involved police officers and other responders. They participated in realistic scenarios with the actors and training leaders. The scenes were followed by discussion and analysis by the course's two-dozen participants.

Cardillo and fellow actor Frank LaFrazia, also a member of the Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe, have performed in the training session in each of the four years it has been held at Berkshire Community College. The training is offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Berkshire County.

Every aspect of the response to the scenarios that were acted out on Friday was examined closely in a lively discussion led by Maj. Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Department.

"To me, this came up as not just someone who was drunk," one officer commented, referring to Cardillo.

"My main issue was that she broke up with the boyfriend," another said. "I wanted to get her to someone to talk to."

Another said an issue that police officers who work the midnight shift have is determining the amount of time they can spend on one call waiting for a person to calm down, or to find a solution to a problem, while other calls are stacking up.

"You are thinking about the noise, the disturbance, the calls," he said, adding that the pressure can lead to a rapid decision to take someone into custody.

The type of shift that a police officer is experiencing can limit their responses, Grady and the others said. But Grady also listed a number of options that can be used to defuse a mental health crisis without making an arrest. The arrest itself can lead officers to spend hours dealing with a case.

Being aware that police officers often carry a stigma in the eyes of the public is useful, Grady said. He recommended the officers analyze how they appear when approaching such a scene -- knowing they can easily seem intimidating -- and to take a close look at their own prejudices toward certain people, certain behaviors, or toward areas of their city or town.

He also cautioned against allowing the person in crisis to trigger the wrong response, or allowing other members of the household present to push emotional buttons that will escalate the situation.

"When they are in a manic state, command presence is not going to help," one officer said.

Not sitting too close to the person and talking in a calm voice are among "the many tools we have" to defuse a situation, Grady said, adding that quickly recognizing a mental health issue and calling for whatever assistance is required is another key.

In all scenarios, an officer said, having patience and enough time to recognize an opportunity to de-escalate a crisis is a good approach.

LaFrazia and Marilyn Moran, president of NAMI's Berkshire chapter, said the response of officers over the past four years -- during which about 80 individuals have received training -- reflects the success of the program.

"During the first few years, we had officers who only knew one way to react. They were thinking, ‘contain, contain,' " LaFrazia said. He said the reactions on Friday were patient and well-designed to have a less-confrontational result.

"This class was the largest yet," Moran said. There were 23 participants from police departments, county sheriff's personnel, college security offices and ambulance services.

Berkshire County District Attorney David F. Capeless, whose office helps fund the training, said the positive response to it reflects a need that is not being addressed during traditional police officer training.

"Mental health issues are not criminal offenses," he said. "Yet some end up in court, and that may depend on how the encounter is handled."

The training, Capeless said, helps make it safer for police officers and the person in crisis and makes officers feel more comfortable dealing with these issues.

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael J. Wynn said, "There is no question that, from a law enforcement perspective, this is a population we are dealing with in greater frequency. It requires a different skill set."

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien


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