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Western Indiana police get training on handling mentally ill

March 13, 2017

An elderly woman with a walker — wearing a robe and house slippers — shuffled around a Terre Haute city park in the rain.

When two Terre Haute Police officers approached her, the woman knew her name was Christine and told the officers she was “trying to get home,” but she wasn't quite sure where home was.

Detective Troy Pesavento was patient with Christine, introducing himself, asking her name, describing her apparent confusion, and summarizing the information Christine was telling him.

He eventually convinced her to get into his police car so he could give her a ride home. His next step would be to find the appropriate help for Christine.

The scenario was a role-playing segment in a weeklong Crisis Intervention Training Program organized by local and state organizations to build stronger relationships between law enforcement, mental health agencies and the local chapter of National Association of Mental Illness.

Officers from THPD, Indiana State University Police, and Putnam County were among the 24 law enforcement participants in the 40-hour class that wraps up Monday.

“We started organizing this last fall, to develop better understanding of the local mental health organizations and their limitations,” THPD Capt. Aaron Loudermilk of the training. “At the same time, we are learning better techniques to approach people in mental health crisis.”

Organizers have brought in 26 guest speakers to present on a variety of topics, such as children with mental illness, autism, homelessness, suicide, traumatic brain injury and how to de-escalate situations. Judges from the Vigo County court system also met as a community resource panel during lunch at the Hamilton Center Child and Adolescent Services building.

Ashley Williamson, director of the inpatient psychiatric unit at Terre Haute Regional Hospital, said the need for police officers to receive mental health training is growing. “This training is another tool for them to use when responding to a mental health situation,” Williamson said.

The training does not replace law enforcement training, she said, but is useful when safety is not a factor in a situation.

CIT was developed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1989 and has been a growing program around the country. It is not required training for police, Williamson said, but many agencies are getting the training. In Marion County, for instance, police implemented the program in 2016. They responded to more than 1,500 mental health crisis calls, and only one call resulted in an arrest.

Making an arrest of a person in mental health crisis is often not the best outcome for a situation, Capt. Loudermilk said, especially if the person has not committed a crime. The county jail is not a mental health care facility.

“Arresting someone with mental illness for a low-level offense doesn’t make the problem better or go away,” he said.

“This gives us a better understanding of what we can do rather than incarcerate someone — what agency to call or who can provide appropriate services,” he said.

During one session, officers were shown brain scans of people with different diagnoses to show that those people are having brain changes. Williamson said seeing those MRIs gave the officers evidence that a person in crisis functions differently.

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