MANSFIELD — Jeffrey Hutchinson paced back and forth across the stage, clinging a pocket knife. 

Jay Blackshear and Heather Logan, both security personnel at OhioHealth’s Mansfield Hospital, tried to get him to surrender the knife as an audience of first responders watched the scene unfold.

Hutchinson, a local actor, was part of the Friday’s Crisis Intervention Team training, led by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Richland County and the Richland County Mental Health & Recovery Services Board.

CIT is a collaborative effort between law enforcement and mental health professionals designed to help officers handle incidents involving people dealing with mental illness.

The training emphasizes both officer and individual safety as well as proper referrals for those in crisis, who may benefit from mental health treatment rather than incarceration. 

Participants completed a 40-hour course that ended with simulations based on real-life scenarios. Actors from the Mansfield Playhouse portrayed community members dealing with various mental health challenges.

Officers, who were not made aware of the scenarios until moments before, had to respond. The simulations were a chance for them to put the knowledge and skills they’d studied earlier in the week to the test.

Hutchinson played a hospitalized man dealing with paranoia. Blackshear and Logan were charged with calming him down before he met with the hospital social worker.

Hutchinson refused to give up his pocket knife. He told officers he had to keep it out of the hands of terrorists and he didn’t know who he could trust.

Blackshear insisted he hand the knife over. After a couple of failed attempts, his partner tried a different approach.

“Can you set it down here and I can pick it up?” she said, gesturing to the chair.  

“That way I don’t have to touch you.”

After a bit of coaxing and a promise to keep it out of the wrong hands, Hutchinson gingerly set the knife down. 

Blackshear pulled up the other folding chair. 

“I’ll sit with you,” he said.

Joe Trolian, executive director for the Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services board, congratulated the officers.

“You did the good-cop, bad-cop thing and it worked,” he said.

Each trainee participated in at least one simulation. After each scenario, the trainers debriefed, going over what went well and offering additional suggestions. Trolian co-led the exercise with Sgt. Nicole Gearhart of the Mansfield Police Department. 

Trolian told officers not every mental health related call requires arrest or hospitalization. 

In one case, officers conducted a wellness check on a man with bipolar disorder. 

The man told officers he hadn’t taken his medication or slept in a few days. He was hyper-focused on finishing a painting, but not an immediate threat to himself or others.

In that situation, Trolian suggested having an officer on the next shift stop in to check on him again.

“After he has another two hours to work on his masterpiece, he may be more cooperative,” Trolian said.

Not all simulations ended in resolution, but none ended in violence.

Carl Hunnell played Charlie, a man concerned that bad actors were sending secret messages through newspapers. 

Charlie clutched a stack of newspapers he shoplifted from a gas station. He told officers he paid for them and had to keep them all to stop the poisoning of a city reservoir.

Officers were unsuccessful in persuading Hunnell to surrender or pay for the papers. 

“The only thing I would be concerned about is, regardless of all this going on, there’s still a crime committed,” Trolian said.

“He shoplifted those newspapers. We want to de-escalate the situation, but we’ve also got to address the initial concern for what he was brought in for.”

Scenarios were cut off at eight minutes for the sake of time, but Trolian said resolving real-life situations often takes longer.

“Typically if they’re on scene, they’re probably going to be involved with the case for 30 to 40 minutes,” he said.

“It’s not so much whether or not they reach resolution (during the training), it’s ‘Are they utilizing the techniques they’ve learned during the week?'”

Gearhart said de-escalating situations often boils down to compassion and helping meet the basic needs of those in crisis. 

During almost every scenario, officers asked the actors about the last time they’d slept or ate and whether they were taking any medication.

“If we take time to speak to people for as long as we can, to determine what their needs are, it definitely helps,” said Gearhart. “It helps them calm down.”

Gearhart noted that de-escalation is only possible if there is no imminent threat of violence. 

“We don’t always have that luxury, but if we’re able to speak to people, communicate with them, and then be able to calm them down enough to make solid decisions when the opportunity arises — that’s a great tool to have,” she said.

CIT was developed in the late 1970s in Memphis, Tennessee, and has since become a nationwide initiative, according to NAMI Richland County executive director Mary Kay Pierce. 

Richland County has held 30 classes and trained 607 law enforcement officers and first responders since 2004. Sessions typically include law enforcement and first responders from across Richland and Ashland counties. 

Gearhart said the program is especially beneficial for up-and-coming officers.

“We are taught as policemen, we’re crime fighters,” she said. “Sometimes not everything is a crime and not everybody needs to go to jail.

“People need help and this brings light to that, especially to younger officers who’ve never experienced this or encountered this.”

Some studies have found that CIT training may lead to decreased officer and citizen injuries, fewer arrests and more referrals to behavioral healthcare for those in crisis. Others find less evidence for these outcomes, but note that CIT trained officers do have better knowledge of behavioral health conditions and resources in the community. 

For best results, CIT programs require collaboration and open-mindedness from individual trainees and local agencies. Every law enforcement agency in Richland County has sent officers for CIT training, according to NAMI Ohio.  

Drawing data-based conclusions can also be difficult because of the differing ways that law enforcement and behavioral health agencies collect data, but both local mental health professionals and law enforcement are confident the training is making a difference. 

“We deal with a lot of individuals who are absolutely frightened of authority figures and we have seen that decrease exponentially as we have done this class,” Trolian said.

“I especially love the fact that probably half this class has been on the job two years or less.”

Gearhart said community awareness of the program is growing. 

“People will ask for CIT-trained officers,” she’s aid. “They know that we have been trained that we have tools and resources, especially families who have an individual in their family that may be in crisis.”

Trolian said the mental health board is working on expanding its collaboration with law enforcement with expanded hours at the behavioral health urgent care and a trained mobile crisis unit that can accompany officers on mental health-related calls.

The unit would work to de-escalate situations and hopefully reduce involuntary hospitalizations.

“We already have a team that will go out for certain individuals that they’re very familiar with, but we’re hoping to do more crisis response in the community,” he said. 

“We’re hoping that 30 to 50 percent of the calls we will be brought on, we can keep people in the home and never have to transport them to the hospital.”

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