Mental health training yields positive results for Cortland Police Department

Susan Williams, assistant director for the Seven Valleys Health Coalition, and Lt. David Guerrera with the Cortland Police Department speak during an Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team (EDPRT) class for local and regional law enforcement personnel and first responders. (Sarah Bullock/Cortland Voice)

When Lt. David Guerrera first agreed seven years ago to send officers to a training on how to interact with emotionally disturbed people, he had no idea the class would help to reduce the department’s use of force by up to 20 percent.

The city police department is dispatched to respond to an emotionally overwhelmed or mentally ill person about once a day, Guerrera said, and he thought the training could help officers respond effectively.

“It was 15 years since I had two days of mental illness training,” said Guerrera, remembering the training he received at the police academy.

After a class of officers graduated from this year’s training on Friday, about 90 percent of the city patrol officers can boast they successfully completed 40 hours of mental and emotional health training, Guerrera said. Since the training began in 2012, the department’s use of force statistics dropped by 17-20 percent, a third of calls no longer result in hospitalization and no officers have been injured in a confrontation, he said. Guerrera is most proud of the department’s increased proactive measures: officers will visit individuals earmarked by the Department of Social Services as vulnerable over the weekend to make sure they are OK and follow up with people involved with a mental health call officers are dispatched on.

The training is led by Eric Weaver, a retired Rochester Police Department sergeant, pastor and counselor, who focuses on mental and emotional health, response and crisis prevention.

Weaver explained to the officers, that included members of the City Police, Sheriff’s Office, SUNY Cortland University Police Department and State Police, that one in five Americans live with some form of mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health notes the statistic amounts to 46.7 million U.S. citizens as of 2017 and includes those with mild to severe symptoms. One in 20 people experience thoughts of suicide each week in the United States, Weaver noted.

The training also addressed common misperceptions about mental health issues, such as the belief it is better not to ask someone if they are suicidal directly in case you might give them the idea to commit suicide.

“You can’t put an idea in someone’s head just by asking a question,” Weaver said. The notion that mental toughness prevents depression and other mental illnesses is also false, he said.

The most common form of mental illness is anxiety and the least common is schizophrenia, Weaver noted. It is possible to recover from mental illness and the most effective resolutions come from a combination of medications, therapy and treatment.

A complicating issue is the occurrence of drug use and mental illness at the same time, and some drug abuse symptoms mimic other mental illness symptoms, Weaver noted.

“Good communication skills are most effective when dealing with an (emotionally disturbed person),” Weaver counseled the officers, adding slowing down and talking honestly with an individual is key. Most mentally ill people are not violent and simply need a person with an open mind, a caring attitude and helpful support, he said. “Mental illness is not a crime,” Weaver said. “It is a medical condition.”

Weaver’s three main points as he ended his training were simple: each person is of immense value, no one is alone and honesty with yourself and others is invaluable.

 

Patrolman Ben Locke of the Cortland Police Department said the training was one of the most productive and informative he has ever been to.

“It’s eye-opening to see all of the signs and indications that come with mental illness,” Locke said, adding that the majority of people the police interact with may be suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.

Locke found the training on how to talk with people in a calm manner and how to use strategies to diffuse situations with words before using physical restraints or force “very important.”

“Because we’re all trying to achieve the same goal — get these people help,” he said. “Doing it in a way that’s not so dangerous for them, not so dangerous for us, is a plus.”

Locke said he’s always been a “big talker” to those he encounters and was happy to learn the new techniques, but cautioned that not every conversation will successfully diffuse a situation and sometimes a hands-on approach is needed.

But using the training to talk with an individual in distress is preferable, he noted.

“…Diffusing with words rather than hands on is better for everyone,” Locke said.

As useful as the training strategies are, the most important thing Locke said he learned about was empathy — a trait Greek scholar Euripedes described as, “When a good man is hurt all who would be called good must suffer with him.”

Kaitlyn Bliss, a corrections officer with the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department, agreed.

“This definitely changes my perspective a lot on how I do my job,” said Bliss, who works in the Cortland County Correctional Facility. “They’re not all bad people. They may have mental illness.”

The training also helped Bliss see the hope for recovery that always exists, but isn’t always apparent.

“If you’re in a dark place, everything (Weaver’s) saying is correct. There’s a way out,” Bliss said. “We just have to ask for help and that’s hard for some people.”

The total cost of the 40-hour training for all 15 officers is about $8,500 and is usually paid through grants, said Susan Williams, Assistant Director of the Seven Valleys Health Coalition and training organizer. The Cortland County police departments are not charged for the training, but if an officer from an agency outside of the county wanted to attend, a fee would be attached, she said. There was one state police officer from Camillus at last week’s training, Williams noted.

This year, grant funding is not yet located for the training so the Seven Valleys Health Coalition is floating the money until funding can be secured, Williams said. The first year the training was held, Seven Valleys partnered with Catholic Charities, Cortland County Mental Health Coalition and Family Counseling Services to pay for the training, she said. The four agencies initially pulled together because they saw the value in the training, Williams said. The Cortlandville Fire Department also donates its department’s training room, which keeps costs low, she said.

In addition to learning about how to address the emotions and mental health needs of others, officers learned how to deal with their own emotions and issues. Police officers are particularly prone to certain types of mental health issues because of the demands of their jobs, such as the build up of unresolved stress called cumulative stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If you see each other struggling in any way,” Weaver said, as he ended the training, “sometimes we’re the only ones we got.”