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Sun Gazette: Arlington public-safety officers lauded for using crisis-intervention skills Print


Created:  Monday, April 6, 2015 12:00PM


A growing connectivity between mental-health professionals and the local law-enforcement community was on display at Arlington's second annual CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) awards ceremony, held at Virginia Hospital Center.

"We have an extraordinary partnership. We all work together," said Beth Tschopp, chief of the Behavioral Healthcare Division of the county government's Department of Human Services, who praised "the skills, the dedication, the passion" of all those who work in tandem to defuse potentially life-threatening events.

Consider the efforts of Arlington County Police Department Cpl. Jonathan Stanley, one of the nearly 50 percent of Arlington officers who have taken the CIT training.

Stanley was confronted by a situation that involved a man threatening suicide from behind a locked door.

With "slow, patient understanding," Stanley was able to gain the trust of the individual, eventually resolving the situation and getting the man the professional help he needed.

For his efforts, Stanley was honored as CIT Officer of the Year. Other awards went to Sheriff's Deputy Jason Barnett, Emergency Communications Technician III Mindy Secrest and Sheriff's Office Sgt. Melinda Johnson.

Arlington's CIT initiative is one of 33 such programs across the commonwealth that have been developed over the past 15 years, resulting in the training of 7,500 individuals.

"Virginia is a national leader," said Tonya Vincent, Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security for the state government.

The collaborative effort "has taken a firm hold" in the commonwealth, said Vincent, formerly a member of the county police department.

Crisis-intervention efforts include participation of everyone from public-safety personnel and the judiciary to health-care providers and mental-health advocates.

"We have such a great partnership," Sheriff Beth Arthur said. "We look out for persons that are in distressed circumstances."

"It's everyone coming together – changing the way we treat people with mental illness," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), who before being elected to the legislature served as chairman of the Arlington Community Services Board, an agency that addresses the needs of those with mental and intellectual challenges.

The Arlington program serves as "a model for the rest of the state, and dare I say, the nation," Hope said.

The evening's keynote speaker, Judge Steven Leifman of Florida's Eleventh Judicial Circuit, noted that during the course of a year, 1.5 million with serious mental illnesses are arrested across the nation. At any one time, 500,000 people with mental illness are in jail or prison.

Leifman, an advocate for new ways of addressing the problem, said it often can be difficult for public-safety and health officials to break old habits.

"Most communities . . . are so protective of their own silos, are unwilling to go outside the box," he said.

Liefman suggested that creative thinking is needed; otherwise, the criminal-justice system faces the prospect of being overwhelmed, particularly in large urban area.

On any given day, the Miami-Dade County Jail houses approximately 1,200 individuals with serious mental illness, according to Florida officials, representing nearly 20 percent of the total inmate population and making the jail the largest psychiatric facility in Florida.

The cost to Miami taxpayers: $50 million a year.

Arlington was not the first community in the nation, or even Virginia, to embrace the CIT effort, an initiative that began in Tennessee in the late 1990s. But the county is making up for lost time.

The Arlington County Police Department began sending officers to 40-hour CIT training in 2009. Now, more than 40 percent of the force has had it.

"That's just the beginning – we're not done yet," said Dave Dailey, acting deputy chief for operations of the police department.