December 12, 2012

Maine police make spotty use of crisis training

Issues of cost and staffing limit participation in a program that could protect the mentally ill and officers alike.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 3)

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Tuesday, Feb.21, 2012. Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry outside the Sagadahoc County Courthouse and Sherff's Dept. in Bath.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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That wasn't for lack of interest, said JoAnne Fisk, Biddeford's deputy chief. The department has twice canceled plans to send officers to the week-long training, due to staffing demands. In the past several years, Biddeford has lost more than 10 patrol positions to budget cuts, she said.

Fisk is well aware of deadly force issues. In 2009, a Biddeford officer shot and killed a disturbed woman on a downtown street. The woman called 911 and threatened suicide, then pointed a handgun at the officer who responded. This sort of confrontation is sometimes called "suicide by cop," implying that the victim desired to die.

The Maine Attorney General's Office reviewed the shooting, as required by law. Biddeford police also conducted their own internal review. Both agencies concluded the shooting was justified.

Fisk defended the officer's actions in an interview, saying no training could have averted the tragedy. But she noted the department has begun working more closely with a local mental-health service provider, Counseling Services Inc., to identify clients who may come in contact with police.

And Biddeford is following through with CIT. It sent its first six officers to a training session in Sanford last spring, using leftover project funds to pay for replacements.

FINDING THE MONEY A CHALLENGE

Tight budgets don't negate the responsibility for police to have up-to-date training, said Terry Dwyer, assistant professor of justice and law at Western Connecticut State University. Departments risk civil suits if training becomes an issue after a violent confrontation, he said.

"I don't see that as being a legitimate argument, especially with deadly force incidents," said Dwyer, a former New York State Police investigator who was unsuccessfully sued over a deadly force incident. "That's training you shouldn't be cutting corners on. It's as much an officer safety issue as anything else."

At the current pace, though, Maine can't greatly increase the number of officers receiving CIT training.

"The only way you're going to reach all officers is to teach it at the police academy," said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. "But what would it cost? And where would the money come from?"

No one has that answer.

John Rogers, who heads the police academy, figures Maine would need to train roughly 2,000 more officers. His quick calculations for a week of instruction: Fifty people in a classroom, an $80 per person academy charge and an average $25-an-hour salary to replace an officer. It would take several years and a lot of money, he concluded.

And in the end, this blanket approach may not be effective. CIT training is best suited for officers who have gained some experience in the field and show an interest in the program, said Sam Cochran, a retired Memphis Police major who coordinates the CIT Center at the University of Memphis. Not every officer has the skills for SWAT team duty, Cochran noted, and the same is true for CIT training.

"Some officers may not be ready," he said. "CIT brings with it a certain level of maturity, judgment and leadership."

But it remains desirable to have more than one CIT-certified officer on each shift, Cochran said. To achieve that, Maine police forces will need to be creative.

One example: Last year, the United Way of Mid Coast Maine used a grant to pay for replacement officers, so 15 police in the Bath-Brunswick area could attend CIT training. They included Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office deputies.

CIT is critical for rural patrols, said Merry, the county sheriff. Deputies can be far from backup by other officers and mental health professionals. Their training can make the difference between a non-event and a grieving family.

"It falls on every department to make CIT training a priority," Merry said. "These cases are disturbing to every police chief and sheriff. You don't want them to end in tragedy, and so often, they do."

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