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‘We deal with people on the worst days’

March 24, 2019 GMT

It’s a Thursday afternoon, and Olmsted County Sheriff’s Patrol Deputy Nick Jacobson is responding to a welfare call. A concerned neighbor heard yelling, and things being thrown about.

Jacobson walks up to a wrought-iron door and begins talking through it to a visibly distraught woman. She had a bottle of alcohol and soon Jacobson will learn she also has pills and is ready to be done with her life. Despite the bottles staying in her hands, the woman never opens the pills.

The situation never gets to the point where Jacobson has to use force to stop the woman from harming herself.

The door is imaginary. The woman is an actress. The “welfare call” is a role-playing exercise designed to help officers hone their skills in calmly responding to crisis situations.

“If you are a sniper ... you go out shooting frequently,” Jacobson said. “When your job is to talk to people all the time, that is another skill that needs to always be maintained, always refined. This is a good way to keep you sharp on that and be able to calm people down when they are in crisis because that is when we deal with people, generally, not on good days, but the worst days.”

“It’s not uncommon to run into five, six people during a day who have been in crisis,” he said.

Actors playing roles

The role-playing exercises use professional actors who are trained in crisis. Officers are given few details about the situation they are walking into and then are forced to respond as if they were on a call.

As Jacobson’s scenario played out, he learned more details about the woman (played by actress Nicole Goeke) and what she was going through.

At the end, Jacobson was able to get feedback from fellow officers and a program coach.

Sgt. Jim Schueller was working at the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center WHEN HE first went through the critical incident training.

“[I] found that everything that they taught us to be directly related to everything we do. Ninety percent of our time, whether at the jail or on the street, is spent talking to people,” he said. Every skill that they taught us in the class, seemed like this is exactly what I was looking for.”

Now Schueller helps run the program.

Last week, 30 participants from the Rochester Police Department and the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office, as well as two social workers, took part in the Crisis Intervention Training. The four-day, 40-hour training combines lectures, guest speakers and role play to give those in law enforcement another tool when responding to calls.

“A lot of what we will train officers on this week is using active listening to try and help people when they are in crisis,” Rochester Police Sgt. Paul Gronholz said last week. Gronholz serves as the CIT coordinator for the department and is also a program coach.

“We get numerous calls for people that are either in crisis or maybe going through some kind of mental illness,” he said. “Every day we are responding to multiple calls like that, so officers put what they are trained in this week on a daily basis, multiple times a day.”

Officers empowered to listen

The training is touted as the only in-house program in the state, meaning members of the police department and the sheriff’s office run the training rather than contracting the work out. Now that the training is complete, 80 percent of the police department has been trained in crisis intervention. Between the police department and the sheriff’s office, more 60 percent of personnel have been trained.

The training also helps officers learn how to de-escalate a situation rather than coming in and taking charge immediately and giving orders.

“Officers are empowered to listen to people, to not necessarily be an overwhelming presence but to be an officer that deescalates a situation by listening and using tactics that aren’t necessarily overwhelming,” Gronholz said.

The training program began more than a decade ago and Gronholz said it has impacted how he responds to calls. The training also gives officers the information necessary to help people get in contact with resources in the community.

“Officers are encouraged to help the person and not just show up, mitigate the problem for a few moments and then get called back later,” Gronholz said. “Officers are empowered to help them resolve the situation so we don’t have to keep going back for the same reasons.”

The classes also teach officers to sense how a person on the other side of a call may feel, Schueller said.

“It really opens your eyes to see that something as simple as our approach — how we physically walk up to someone, our tone of voice, our volume of voice – how all that can have a direct impact before we even start to talk to them about their problems,” he said.

First-hand knowledge

One of the panels of guest speakers included representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southeast Minnesota. Steve Cray, who serves as the interim director for the local office of the national nonprofit, said being able to properly respond to mental health related calls was a growing need.

“This is a very different call than a regular criminal call,” Cray said.

Those in Rochester and the county were very fortunate to have such a high number of officers trained in crisis intervention, Cray said.

“An officer comes into the picture with the ultimate weapon and that is gun. It doesn’t have to be a problem for them, they can use their gun,” Cray said. “Obviously, they don’t want to do that, no one wants to do that, so for them to be equipped with tools that can help a situation deescalate so that a gun does not have to be used — everybody wins. It’s about giving them more tools and resources where gun force does not have to be used.”

Karen Tracy has had mental health issues for most of her life and she’s seen first hand how the response has changed. Tracy, who is a peer support specialist for NAMI, spoke at the training about her own experiences.

When a call for help was made in years past, she said, ambulances, police officers and the fire department would show up and take her away, leaving her husband to answer all the questions.

“I was taken to a nice safe place and he had to do all the dirty work, the clean-up afterwards,” said Tracy, of Kasson.

Now, local law enforcement has created a crisis response team and trained more officers and sheriff’s deputies in how to respond to those situations. And the response, Tracy said, has changed dramatically.

“They understand when we call in a mental health crisis, they need to take a deep breath and treat us as a human being,” she said. “You are going to see us at our worst time when we call them. They are our last resort. We are reaching out for help, we are not feeling well. We don’t feel safe.”

She shared her story so law enforcement has a better of understanding of what it’s like to be on the other end. She sees it as a way to give back for the help she has received.

“The more we can educate our public and the more people that know how to help us, we won’t be so scared to reach out for help,” Tracy said.

For Jacobson, the week of training and the role-playing scenarios gave him a chance to focus on improving his communication skills and get feedback without all the added information and distractions that come with a real call.

“It will just make me pay more attention to the specific way that I am talking to somebody,” he said. “It’s going to refine my skills a bit.”