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Crisis intervention training pays off


Two Vero Beach Police officers were honored last Tuesday for their work diffusing a potentially dangerous situation at an Ocean Drive resort and getting help for a mentally unstable island resident.

Sergeant Chris Roberts and Officer Russell Laconic were recognized at the Indian River County Courthouse for outstanding implementation of Crisis Intervention Training during a gathering of the Mental Health Court Team.

CIT allows police to better respond to calls involving people with mental illness. It challenges officers to rethink traditional law-enforcement tactics and utilize skills of compassion, patience, communication and collaboration to de-escalate and resolve an incident.

A 53-year-old woman who is a seasonal resident of the Moorings was staying at the Costa d’Este Beach Resort and Spa when she began acting irrationally, Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey told the group.

Over a two-day period, the woman, who was confused and complaining, went into the hot tub naked, bizarrely recited nursing rhymes and tried to trade pebbles collected from outside for a toothbrush. She was pacing back and forth.

When hotel staff contacted police, Roberts and Russell were able to locate the woman’s therapist, who went to the hotel with a family friend. It turned out the woman was manic bipolar and off her medication.

She was suspicious of the police when they approached her but the two officers used their Crisis Intervention Training to calm her down, working in collaboration with the therapist, Currey said.

Once the situation was under control, they instituted the Baker Act, taking the woman into custody for a mental health assessment without effectuating an arrest. She went willingly and even ended up calling the police “nice guys,” he said. 

Weeks later, Vero Beach Police were called to Quail Valley Club where the woman was again acting disturbed. A second Baker Act was instituted, which hopefully got her the help she needs, Currey said.

Florida’s Baker Act allows judges, law enforcement, physicians and mental health professionals to involuntary commit someone for up to 72 hours for mental health assessment if they are unstable and a danger to themselves or others.

The officers’ work prompted accolades from the hotel management, the woman’s psychotherapist and people at the island club. The general manger of Costa d’Este Beach Resort and Spa wrote to say the officers’ patience and compassion was “amazing,” something he had never before witnessed in his long career in hospitality, according to a letter read by the chief at the courthouse.

The psychotherapist wrote to say she was proud to live in a town where the police “respect the needs of the mentally ill.” Quail Valley also commented on a third officer’s professionalism.

Law enforcement made a commitment to Crisis Intervention Training along the Treasure Coast in 2006, Currey said after the ceremony. Officers from a host of agencies are recognized quarterly. 

Forty-four of the 55 sworn Vero Beach Police officers have undergone the training, including members of the administration, Currey said.

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people have an undiagnosed mental illness that requires treatment, the chief continued. Years ago, the incidents at the hotel and club would have likely ended in jail, charges for disorderly conduct, trespassing or resisting arrest.

There wouldn’t have been much consideration of the individual’s mental state or whether or not incarceration would get her the help she needs.

High recidivism rates among the mentally ill have forced police to rethink how they do their job, creating a paradigm shift. Officers now try to find help for mentally ill people.

Better training is the first step.  Good officers are key, Currey said.

“We can train in all different parts of law enforcement – firing arms, driving the vehicles, all different types of things – but you know what, if you ask me, it’s the person prior to the training, as well,” Currey told those assembled.

“What they bring when they are hired, their compassion, and their upbringing, the way they treat people . . . I think that goes a long way. Now you have coupled it with CIT and it’s a win-win.”