Police complete crisis intervention training

May 18—A police officer in Crawford County who responds to a person experiencing a mental health crisis — for instance, a man whose most recent message to his mother suggests that he is considering suicide — bears a heavy responsibility, according to Dustin LeGoullon, Titusville's public safety commissioner.

"The officers respond to incidents by themselves," LeGoullon said. "There's no other resources, there's no other help. Our job is to help the community in any way we can, so the design of this is to give them ample tools, ample knowledge to be able to effectively help citizens in the situations they're in."

LeGoullon's comments came immediately after 13 officers and other first responders were recognized Friday upon completing a week-long training seminar at Allegheny College on responding to behavioral health crises. The group is the second of four expected to go through the training.

All 12 members of Titusville Police Department have now completed the course offered by the Crawford County Human Services Crisis Intervention Team, said LeGoullon, who was part of the first cohort. The value of the training has already been observed, he added.

"We've seen better outcomes — absolutely," LeGoullon said. "Without a doubt."

In addition to five Titusville officers, the ceremony held in Allegheny's Pelletier Library included four members of the Meadville Police Department staff, two from Allegheny College Public Safety, one from Cambridge Springs Police Department and one from Meadville Central Fire Department's emergency medical staff.

The event also included a demonstration of the sorts of encounters participants had practiced over the course of the week. Nicolas Mogel, a school resource officer with Meadville Police Department, played the role of an officer checking on the welfare of a man whose mother called 911 when she received a voicemail from the son saying he was, "Sorry for everything, and she wouldn't have to worry about him anymore after tonight."

Crawford County Human Services program specialist Ron Arnold played the role of the son. At first, he insisted to the responding officer that he was "feeling pretty good" before eventually revealing his depression and agreeing to be transported to the hospital.

Afterward, Mogel said the training would help with his work at Meadville Area Senior High.

"We get kids that are in crisis," Mogel said. "There's a lot of different resources up at the schools with the counselors. This just adds to the overall strategy of helping kids if they are experiencing a crisis."

Both Greg Beveridge, Crawford County Public Safety Director, and John Spataro, president judge of Crawford County Court of Common Pleas, noted the timeliness of the training given the rise in attention to mental health-related issues in both law enforcement and the judicial system.

"This set a good path for these officers, all 13 of them, to make a better impact in this community when dealing with people in crisis," Beveridge said. "With this environment that all police officers work in anymore, this is part of the growing arsenal of tools they need to facilitate their jobs in a safe manner."

Participation in the program demonstrated significant commitment on the part of both the participants themselves and their agencies, Spataro noted, but also one that is more necessary than ever.

"We all have to learn about mental illness," he said. "We're seeing so much more of this at every level."

In addition to role-playing scenarios and visits to agencies involved in various aspects of crisis response and mental health support, participants directly heard from recovering addicts and people with mental health problems, according to Joe Barnhart, who coordinates the Crawford County Crisis Intervention Team. The experience helped put a human face on the issues and served as a reminder that people can recover from such experiences.

Participants also simulated such crises, Barnhart said. In a "hearing voices" simulation, they were asked to perform an everyday task, like checking a book out from the library, while wearing earbuds that played intrusive and distracting commands like someone might experience during a psychotic episode.

The training was funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Barnhart said.

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.