All the confrontations that deputies and police officers face are not with criminals.
There are times law enforcement in Franklin County has to defuse a situation involving a distraught individual on the brink of suicide, or deal with someone in the throes of a delusional episode.
Perhaps they must address an autistic child feeling threatened, or reassure an Alzheimer-afflicted senior disoriented by an unfamiliar and perplexing world.
When that next time comes, chances are that law enforcement officers will be better able to see it through successfully.
This is because a core group of two dozen of them, from departments throughout Franklin, Wakulla and Liberty counties, last week were part of a specialized training course, offered to them at no cost by the Florida Sheriff’s Association (FSA).
Known as Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, the 40-hour course, offered at the sheriff’s office on State Road 65, provided law enforcement staffers with a rigorous overview and intensive look at the different situations that they may encounter.
The CIT program was taught by clinical psychologist, Dr. Joyce Carbonell, a retired Florida State University psychology professor, who now coordinates the training around the state for the FSA.
Carbonell said Sheriff A.J. Smith was particularly enthusiastic about bringing the training to the Forgotten Coast, and so the class was held in a central location so that deputies from Liberty and Wakulla could attend. From Franklin, the course drew deputies and staff from the sheriff’s office, as well as Carrabelle police officers. In addition to having the FSA cover all course costs, departments can be reimbursed for additional overtime accrued because a staffer is in class.
Carbonell said the need for such training is clear, given the lack of available mental health services in the country, and particularly the rural areas of Florida.
“There are so few mental health services in this country, and Florida is 50th in spending on mental health,” she said. “Law enforcement becomes the de facto provider; when people have an emergency, that’s who they call.”
She said the three largest mental health facilities in the country are the Cook County jail, the Los Angeles jail and Rikers Island in New York City, all detention sites.
“For correctional officers and deputies, it’s a big issue,” she said.
While most law enforcement may have some knowledge of the Baker Act - the Florida law that allows for the involuntary institutionalization and examination of an individual - the course offered a deeper understanding of how best to connect people with mental illnesses to area resources, with an aim of lessening the frequency of emergency instances where such action must be taken.
In 2015, there were 62 such involuntary Baker Act exams in Franklin County, nearly two-thirds of them initiated by law enforcement. While mental illness often goes hand in hand with substance abuse, the use of drugs is not in and of itself a reason a person can be examined under the terms of the Baker Act, Carbonell said.
But often mental illness is a root cause for drug and alcohol abuse, and when it is treated, so too can the substance abuse be addressed.
Right now there are three such receiving facilities in the area for Baker Act patients, all in Tallahassee – the Apalachee Center, and behavioral health units at Tallahassee Memorial and Capital Regional hospitals. Carbonell said that beginning in June, Apalachee will become the central receiving site.
While mental health providers and other medical providers can initiate Baker Act cases, the law says law enforcement shall do so if an officer has reason to believe a person has a mental illness, and that there is likelihood of harm to themselves or others, or of self-neglect.
To learn more about the process, the class traveled to Tallahassee to hear from Kendra Brown, administrator of the Leon County Courts, as well as from individuals and their families who have been through the process and who are in recovery.
“It’s very nice for people to see there’s recovery, that you’re serving people in crisis,” said Carbonell. “We stigmatize people with mental illness, we call them crazy, and mentally ill.
“Well, we say people have cancer, we don’t call them ‘cancer people,’” she said. “It’s not a choice people make. It’s not something they want.”
The CIT class focused on techniques for de-escalating a crisis, by talking in a way that displays empathy and builds trust. When these techniques are employed successfully, “uses of force go down,” said Carbonell. “It doesn’t work all the time.”
To learn more about this verbal de-escalation, the class learned from Chris Summers, chief of Leon County Sheriff's Office's department of law enforcement, and from Dick Stephens, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) affiliate in Tallahassee, who has been advocacy coordinator for the Big Bend Crisis CIT since 2005.
By working through scenarios with social workers and volunteers, those in the course were able to sharpen their skills, and have them evaluated by observers., so that in a future crisis, “they won’t just grab them and handcuff,” said Carbonell.
The course was not limited to examples of mental illness, but also focused on ways law enforcement can interact with young people who may have autism, or seniors with Alzheimer’s, or veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. For the latter, the group heard from Frank Norris, who handles Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) for the region.
Carbonell stressed that having these methods of de-escalation and other forms of crisis intervention does not minimize the need for officers to do their jobs.
“If we keep them safe, we’ll keep the county safe,” she said. “This doesn’t mean you still don’t have to be safe.”
At the conclusion of the course, students received a certificate as well as a pin that indicates they are CIT-certified. Carbonell said that knowing an officer has been trained in CIT techniques can be very reassuring to the family of someone who suffers from mental illness.
She said she knows of individuals who, when they call a department for help, will ask specifically for a CIT officer. “One woman told me she knew he would know how to deal with my son,” she said.