Michael Doudna, of Team 12, went into a simulator to see how police were being trained for these high-pressure situations.
GLENDALE, Arizona – It’s been nearly seven years since police arrived at the doors of Michelle Cusseaux’s apartment.
Her mother had called the police to help her daughter, who was suffering from various mental illnesses.
Instead, Cusseaux was shot dead by Phoenix police when they say he attacked them with a hammer.
“A person with a mental illness,” said Frances Garrett, Cusseaux’s mother, “you know you’re ready for that. You don’t come with guns thrown, guns at the door. They sent help that ended the his life “.
Cusseaux’s death brought about a shift in the valley, with a renewed focus on how police handle mental health calls.
“The volume of such cases we’ve gotten has increased exponentially,” said Glenn Doerr, a Glendale police department officer.
All 12 departments of the news contacted have at least some officers trained by the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). They are agents who learn from mental health professionals about how to better manage these calls and get resources for those who need them.
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Some departments also used video-based virtual training.
Doerr has spent more than a decade in force. He says awareness of mental health cases has increased.
For years Glendale and other police departments like Phoenix have used Virtra Screen to help train officers in a risk-free environment.
“[It] it allows us to recreate things they will probably deal with on the street, ”Doerr said.
According to Doerr, the system has more than 100 scenarios, each with a multitude of different “paths” that each situation can take. He said between 40 and 50 of those dealing with mental health situations.
After following the guidelines for using force, Glendale police allowed me to tour four of the scenarios.
The first thing that strikes you is speed.
The five screens lit up and suddenly a man from an abandoned and dilapidated parking lot was yelling at me.
“You’ve heard me. You’ve heard what you said. You don’t care,” he shouted.
I tried to introduce myself. I tried to wonder what was going on. I tried to establish some kind of connection.
I was too passive. The man shouted louder.
“Shoot me, shoot me shoot me now. Eh. You better get me out. You better get me out now,” he shouted.
Before I started this workout, I decided to see if I could avoid pulling the gun. After all, I speak to make a living. You should be able to establish a relationship. Be able to scale.
I told him (confidently) that I would not throw him away. I tried to ask again how he was doing. My mind was trying to think of a connection, but I had no connection to this guy. I didn’t know what was going on. Just calling me. I was crazy and I was spinning.
“Go home with your wife and children.” The man shouted as he stretched his waist. “You know what? I’m going to see who goes home with his wife and kids.”
The next sound was a gunshot as the screen darkened.
The full stage took 45 seconds.
They shot me. If it were real life, maybe it would have killed me.
When the room lights came on, we found out what went wrong.
For safety, I never took command. I never pulled out a Taser or a gun, even when the man was slowly grabbing his waist.
Emotionally, though, I never connected with the person on the screen.
“There were different paths,” Glendale Police Public Information Officer Tiffany Ngalula said, “that’s another thing we try to do (which is tell officers) not to repeat themselves.”
All I could think of was asking what was going on. Agents are told to try to find some connection.
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I come to what looks like a dilapidated property. We are out, sunny, barely a cloud in the sky.
A man is sitting alone on the bench. It looks homeless. He is muttering to himself. Swear on how people always bother you.
“Did you have dinner?” I ask. Maybe this will get the conversation going in a different direction than my last failed attempt.
The man doesn’t really listen to me.
“This is my house, and I’m not leaving nor is he leaving, either,” the man shouts, alone on the bench.
Quickly, I am triggered by an oath-driven throw. I take a step back.
I tell him to calm down and take off his Taser. The man starts throwing my plates and bags at me.
True, if you knew how to operate the Taser, you would have fired. Still, I didn’t know how to do it.
The Taser threat is enough. The man walks away and the stage ends.
“Try to find out what the root of the problem is. Sometimes you can’t, sometimes you can’t, ”Glendale’s officers tell me during the debrief.
What I did well was take out my taser. If I didn’t, I was told the man would have come to me with a knife.
If I fired the Taser after they threw plates at me, it would have been within politics.
Again, the hardest part was establishing a connection. How do you talk to someone who may not be in a stable space at all?
How can you improve something like this?
“Trial and error,” Doerr said.
That’s training, after all, but at least for me it doesn’t come naturally to me.
A radio call tells me a man is acting weird. I get to see a man, dressed in dirty blue jeans. He is disheveled, looking at the sky. It is surrounded by a variety of cardboard boxes.
“You can’t be here,” the man says. “This is a secret”
I ask him what is all secret?
“It simply came to our notice then. NASA, ”the man said.
“Oh NASA? What about NASA? ” I ask.
Then the man tells me that I’m doing a good job, that “I seem to know more than most and that I’m still doing a good job.”
Honestly, I didn’t know the answer. I try to ask again what happens to the boxes. The man is agitated.
“Are you texting me?” said the man. “You know who I am. You better step back.”
I apologized and told him I would back it up a bit. Again, I repeated myself. I can’t think of anything better to say.
“I’ll punch you,” the man said, fists raised.
Again, I pulled out the Taser. I told him that if he didn’t calm down, tase him.
From that moment on, the man calmed down. He told me he had “the right permits” and the scenario was over.
What I was missing, at least with these scenarios, is the gift from the gab. Maybe it’s the screen. Talking to people you don’t understand makes it difficult to make a connection.
The stage was technically a success, but I still didn’t feel like it.
The radio tells me there is a call from a suicidal man.
A man with bushes greets me next to a house. He tells me that a man, named Kevin, has been talking about suicide. He was out of medication and needed help.
I walk to the back of the house. The walking man is wearing a blue sweatshirt and athletic shorts. He slowly turns to me. I see he has a knife a few inches from his chest.
“I need to die,” the man shouts, “You can kill me.”
I tell him I won’t kill him. I wonder what happens to his life.
He starts crying as I take off my Taser. Worried about where he might go with the knife.
“Leave the knife and everything will be fine. Will we talk about it okay? ”I try to keep my voice calm, but strong enough to hear Kevin crying.
“No one wants to hurt you,” I tell Kevin.
It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, ”Kevin said as he turned to the bushy man. Lift the knife and load. I shoot my Taser. Kevin doesn’t stop. Instead, he nails the man to the scrubs. The screen darkens again.
Officer Doerr tells me there is a malfunction. The show recorded that I tried to spray pepper, not Kevin. It is unclear if a Taser would have prevented him from killing the innocent bystander.
“There are those cases where, no matter what you have to say, they don’t want to hear it that day,” Doerr said.
Establishing a connection is incredibly difficult. It didn’t come naturally to me. The only time I felt successful in any situation was when I took out the taser. I had no idea how to talk to someone who was going through a mental crisis, where life and death were really online.
Virtual training is not the only training that officers can do.
Weeks later I went to Cottonwood to see officers passing the crisis intervention team training.
In 40-hour training, agents are trained by mental health professionals to do exactly what I had a hard time doing: talking to those who have a breakdown.
“This is a vital service and training that all first responders need, who will eventually interact with someone experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Paige LeForte of Spectrum. “How to communicate with someone who has hallucinations or is diagnosed with schizophrenia or someone who seems abnormal. This is my day to day. “
Ideally, mental health professionals should be there to safely help with all of these mental health calls.
“Just like they’re not psychologists, we’re not police officers,” LeForte said.
Officers were taught to look for every little detail, from dog tags to the type of shoes they wear to try to find a connection. Change the subject to slow down the situation.
Try to have only one person speaking at a time. Try to understand their point of view. Empathize and see if you can convince a person to sit or move to a safer place. It is a workout that, according to LeForte, has become increasingly common in recent years.
“There’s a dramatic change,” he said.
Officers also have more resources. LeForte is part of a local crisis response team that can help agents work through these mental health situations. The hope is that people can get the help they need, instead of putting it behind bars or using lethal force.
“This is the difference between someone who commits suicide or is hurt in some way versus living and having a chance to thrive in their life,” LeForte said.
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