Crisis intervention averts tragedies

It’s 3 a.m., and you’re the single mother of a 14-year-old boy named Devin. He is your only child, and you tried several times before finally giving birth to this wonderful, fun-loving kid who keeps to himself most of the time.

Last year, Devin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and since then you’ve been working with many doctors trying to get his medication straightened out. This morning, Devin is in a panic, and you cannot help him. He has destroyed the living room and now has a knife. He is threatening to take his own life.

You dial 911 reluctantly. You know you need help, but you’ve seen all the news stations talk about how police officers shoot and kill those with mental illnesses when they show up on a call. You say a quick prayer and hope for the best.

It’s 3 a.m., and you’re a police officer patrolling the central business district. You’ve been on duty for 11 hours and your shift is winding down. You just finished with a very energetic bar closing and dealt with several fights and disturbances when you get the call over the radio of an out-of-control 14-year-old boy wielding a knife, threatening to kill himself. You know that suicidal and homicidal thoughts are the same and realize the seriousness of this call.

Dispatch further advises you that the boy has bipolar disorder and has not been taking his medication. Now you are really nervous; you have no idea how to deal with a person with bipolar disorder, and the last time you tried, it was a lesson in frustration. You hope that you are not forced into a deadly confrontation with this boy. You say a quick prayer as you respond to the call and hope for the best.

You arrive at the house and find Devin outside between the house and the garage still holding the knife and screaming. You approach and confront Devin, yelling for him to drop the knife. He turns and starts toward you, not responding to commands. Another officer who knows Devin from little league baseball yells out to him. Devin recognizes the officer’s voice and drops the knife. You safely take him into custody and everyone involved says another quick prayer.

These types of events happen frequently in La Plata County and across the nation. Before crisis intervention, many of these calls had the potential to end in tragedy. The Crisis Intervention Team was a concept designed and developed by the Memphis Police Department in the 1980s after Memphis officers shot and killed a mentally ill man wielding a rake. CIT has been an effective training tool for law-enforcement officers across the nation to effectively de-escalate individuals with mental illness who are in crisis.

The Durango Police Department has been training officers in crisis intervention since 2003. At the end of this month, we will graduate another class of Crisis Intervention Team members. This training is intense and works on verbal and nonverbal communication skills for the officers involved as well as training on specific mental illnesses.

This year is the 10th anniversary of Crisis Intervention Team training in Durango. We have graduated a total of 202 students from CIT, 161 of those students being law-enforcement officers from the area. Ninety percent of the patrol officers at the Durango Police Department have been trained in CIT. The police department is committed to better serve the community through these ongoing efforts and hopes this training will avert future tragedies.

Lt. Ray Shupe is assistant operations division commander with the Durango Police Department.