Six days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in south Florida and the day before Florida Suicide Prevention Day, the University of Central Florida Police Department held a training seminar on mental health crises.
“One of the biggest challenges law enforcement officers face on a daily basis are dealing with people in crisis.” UCF PD Chief Richard Beary said.
The training session aimed to equip officers with the mental, rather than physical, tools to help them de-escalate situations involving individuals suffering from mental illness. This type of training, commonly referred to as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) typically occurs once a year, though the scheduled timing of this training session comes at the heels of a national discussion on mental health after a mass shooting at a south Florida high school.
Beary believes that the recent shooting adds emphasis to their training, as a prime example of a situation that escalated quickly.
The UCF PD responds to crisis situations nearly daily, Beary said.
In 2010, the UCF PD assisted with 30 Baker Acts, or an involuntary institutionalization of an individual suspected of a mental illness or posing harm to themselves or others.
That number sky-rocketed to 118 in 2017, according to Carl Metzger, the Deputy Chief at UCF PD.
Only two months into 2018, there have already been 20 assisted Baker Acts, three of which occured Monday night. “[Mental Health] is a growing problem,” Metzger said.
Citing proper training and partnerships with community resources, Metzger said the UCF PD can keep both officers and community safer.
Sgt. Scott Freeman of the UCF PD led a classroom of UCF PD officers through a powerpoint presentation detailing the right ways to approach and help a person in crisis.
Simple actions such as staying calm and showing empathy can go a long way in creating a positive rappoport with an individual in crisis, which in turn de-escalates a potentially dangerous situation, Freeman said.
After the initial presentation, three fictional scenarios were then shown as examples of possible crisis situations officers may face.
The first scenario was a simulated phone call between UCF’s CIT 2017 Officer of the Year Melissa Guadagnino, and a female “student” facing a crisis situation. In the scenario, the student recently found out that her mother is suffering from cancer. The student was showing signs of extreme duress.
By using empathy and relating her own experiences of her own father suffering from colon cancer, Guadagnino was able to secure a potentially harmful situation.
“There was a situation, there was a female that was gay in the community, and was having a rough time with it. And I’m actually married to a girl, so I could relate that and have her go get some help.” Guadagnino said.
The second and third scenarios involved fictionalized “UCF faculty” who were threatening to commit suicide, one by knife and the other by jumping off a building.
Cpl. Pablo Vargas and Officer Danielle Hughes responded to both threats, and cited that playing on their personal strengths can help de-escalate a situation in which someone’s life is threatened.
By assessing situations in the moment, the officers can decide how to approach someone at an angle that they can relate to, to better calm them down.
In both hypothetical situations Vargas related that he, like the persons threatening themselves, had children. Through that small connection, he was able to calm down both individuals and prevent them from hurting themselves – or others.
“What we’re trying to do here is prepare our employees, our officers, to better handle these situations, to de-escalate, and everybody goes home at the end of the day.” Beary said.