Mad Rad Crisis Intervention Team Training: psych survivors train sheriff deputies

By Faith Rhyne

Mad Rad Crisis Intervention Team Training

Earlier this week, nine members of the Asheville Radical Mental Health Collective met with six deputies from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, one of them a dispatcher, a telecommunicator.

Dressed in plainclothes, the deputies came into the coffee shop shaking hands, with a flurry of Southern manners and introductions, hands being shaken, small talk exchanged.

Couches had been moved and chairs set out, with a fan of handouts spread onto one of the seats, full of writings on radical mental health, trauma informed care, mutual aid, and listening spaces. Six deputies from Buncombe County, North Carolina recently received Icarus Project postcards.

The Asheville Radical Mental Health Collective was invited to participate in the Sheriff’s Crisis Intervention Team training as a “community site visit” by the coordinator of the training, a lively and artful woman who is affiliated with NAMI-Western Carolina, but who is known to identify most strongly as a community member.

The ARMHC was asked to participate as an “alternative mental health” group. In the weeks leading up to the collective’s participation in the CIT training, we talked about how big the topics of alternative mental health, “mental health crisis” and police intervention really are.

People shared their stories of being taken to the hospital, of being handcuffed for feeling sad, of being placed in full restraints for being angry and frightened.

We discussed the lousy law in this state that allows anyone to file a petition for involuntary commitment against anyone else – a law which allows for false or manipulative distortions of a person’s relative wellness to be made by anyone who may have a reason to believe that the individual who is purportedly in crisis may be well-served by having armed officers arrive at their home at some unlikely hour with papers that require that the individual be escorted to the nearest licensed mental health evaluation facility.

vidalWe talked about all that and we talked about Keith Vidal and Kelly Thomas. At one point, it was determined that if a picture of every person in crisis who had ever been killed by police were printed, the images would stretch clear across town.

What happens when people who have lived experience of police intervention in crisis, and the trauma that often comes with such interventions, sit down to talk with law enforcement officers who are trying to learn how to be better allies to people in crisis?

Through discussion, our group came up with some loose guidelines for the scope and direction of the conversation, deciding to focus on the role of trauma in creating crisis and the ways that police intervention can, itself, be traumatic, with an overview of “alternative mental health.”

  • Settling in and small talk
  • Introductions, a little about the group, and safe space guidelines
  • Ask officers about what they might be interested in, any expectations from the site visit (e.g. conversation with us), also what has training has been like, has it brought anything up for them
  • Discussion of what beliefs, assumptions, and personal experiences inform perceptions of crisis and crisis response, what factors impact how we respond to crisis or stressful situations
  • break as needed
  • introduction to alternative views of crisis,
  • the role of trauma (and fear) in crisis escalation,
  • the safe assumption that anyone in crisis is a trauma-survivor,
  • the role of power struggles/desperation in crisis, etc.

One group member posted some guidelines for self-facilitation that they felt like they might do well to keep in mind.

  • Be at ease with body-feelings,
  • be aware of my state,
  • occupy a non-reactive space with myself
  • Take breaths
  • Drink water
  • Pay attention to what my face might be doing as part of a visceral response
  • to something someone might say
  • Have something to do with my hands
  • Be grateful for the opportunity to be present with interesting people in a coffee shop, be compassionate.
  • Remind myself that this is life.
  • Look at people’s eyes,
  • listen to what they are saying
  • Quiet my own mind
  • Do not interrupt people or talk over people,
  • one speaker at a time.
  • Consider what is spoken
  • Do not use the group conversational space to espouse at length full understanding and analysis of a situation or phenomenon. There are other times and places for that.

Another group member identified the themes that had been showing up in conversations about how to be compassionately present with one another during struggle and what defines mutual aid.

  • awareness of power dynamics fear & the impact of trauma honesty, vulnerability
  • closing oneself off
  • isolation
  • developed mistrust
  • humility, open-mindedness empathy, compassion, patience
  • the importance of taking time and giving space
  • relating to others as ‘equals’
  • versus lesser, wounded or inadequate
  • (empathy v. pity),
  • resisting the urge to pathologize
  • relating to others as experts of their own experience,
  • questioning assertions by made by traditional ‘experts’
  • considering the impacts of psych drugs on thoughts, feelings, behaviors
  • the importance of listening, using tact while communicating
  • focus on being non-threatening, physically and verbally
  • the importance of taking a flexible approach to crises, where the outcome is not pre-determined

As the deputies settled into chairs, I noticed that a few of them were wearing those combat-athletic boots that law enforcement officers sometimes wear. I had seen the shoes before, at the county jail where I used to go visit people as part of my job as a peer, until they cut funding for that service.

I told myself not to look at their shoes, their boots. Instead, I looked at their posture and their eyes. They were regular people, with wedding rings and sunburns. Mothers and children and nightmares.

One man was a patrol deputy, another worked at the detention center, two were school resource officers. One fellow, in addition to being a deputy, was a preacher.

During introductions, one of the SROs had to leave to take a phone call from a student at the alternative school where he works. Another spoke a little about his work with a jail diversion program for people convicted of substance abuse related crimes.

We were told that at the alternative school, every single student has at least one diagnosis, often several.

The SRO thanked us, saying that he felt like opportunities like this help crisis intervention team officers to understand how to better help people.

“We want to help people. That’s what we want to do. We want to help people.”

He seemed earnest.

The home of the Eagle Street Coffee Emporium, which supports transformative social change and community by creating space for people to meet.

As we introduced the collective, as a local group of community members who gather as part of a much larger movement, we spoke some about who we are and what perspectives we hold. A few people in the group have been on both sides of crisis, as the person in crisis and as a person who is comforting, de-escalating, or supporting a person in crisis.

Monica Cassani, author and editor at Beyond Meds, spoke about her experience of disarming a person through relationship, through communication.

“He literally had a gun, and we just – you know – talked…and he calmed down, changed his mind.”

The SRO who had gotten the phone call said, “That kid, if I had been there, we could have talked about it, we could have gone outside, and the thing that happened wouldn’t have happened.”

“We have a good relationship.”

Monica replied, “Well, what I am saying is that creating a relationship with the person you are trying to help can be done, literally in moments. If you can really believe that the person you are seeing is a…you know, a person, not just a crisis…if you can really believe that, the situation changes.”

The deputies shared a couple of brief stories about times that a person had had a knife, or a gun and they’d been able to “talk it out.”

One fellow wearing SWAT boots spoke up from the corner, saying that because law enforcement personnel are humans, they have a different range of strengths and abilities, that situations get handled differently by different people, depending on what their skills are or are not.

“Sometimes you have to go in and make a choice and it’s not easy, because you don’t have a lot of information and so you have to think fast…”

The deputy, also a preacher, spoke up, “There is a lot that is at the discretion of the officer. People think that when we roll up, somebody is going to be arrested, somebody is going to jail, but it’s really better for us if it could be resolved without arrest.”

During introduction, one of the deputies had said that their job was to come in and “take charge of a situation,” but that he’d begun to think that maybe coming in and taking charge wasn’t always the best way to approach crisis intervention.

“It’s like, the situation is bad and then we show up and sometimes we make it worse.”

“The de-escalation tactic ends up escalating the crisis.”

We laughed, familiar with the ironic tragedy of heavy-handed good intentions that end up causing major harm, severe problems.

A collective member spoke up, “In my situation, having three cop cars at my house and being taken out in handcuffs and being put into the back of the car for struggling with PTSD and needing to be left alone was not helpful. The handcuffs made me feel like a criminal. As a trauma survivor, being restrained with my hands behind my back was terrifying and re-traumatizing. It wasn’t helpful.”

The deputies listened.

The collective member who had just shared their story asked, “Is there anyway to change that? Like do you have to have armed officers in uniform show up at people’s houses? Do they have to handcuff people?”

The deputy preacher leaned forward in the high-backed parlor chair he was sitting in, with the window behind him, the light shining in. “I think that with the way things are, if deputies talk with the Sheriff about things that need to be changed, there is a chance that some things could be changed. There are always going to be things that are, you know, constraining in how we do our job, but there are some things that could be changed. Like having the telecommunicator go through this training, so that they will be more informed in what to ask during crisis calls so that the people who arrive at the scene are better prepared, and plainclothes, why not have CIT officers wear plainclothes, could handcuffs for people in crisis be employed at the discretion of trained crisis officers?”

“So, in most situations, a person isn’t automatically going to be taken to the hospital or jail?”

“No, not at all.”

“But, when someone has a petition filed on them, when someone goes down to the magistrates office and files papers on someone, you all have to go and get them, don’t you?”

The deputy who had spoken about taking charge shook his head, “…and that’s just a mess. People are confused and pissed off that we’re even there, and a lot of the time the person seems totally fine, then I have to tell that they have to come with me, that I have to take them.”

“That’s the last thing we want to do. That’s when situations get bad, because people get these petitions filed on them for all kinds of reasons, most of which are, like, two people fighting, family disputes, and then they have to be taken to the psych hospital, which is really the last place we’d like to take them, because they don’t even have room there and…”

The collective member who’d spoken about being handcuffed said plainly, “When the cops got to my house, I was pretty okay, but by the time they got me to the hospital I was definitely in crisis.”

Amidst the nods and small sounds of appreciation and agreement, one of the deputies said something about not wanting “to take people’s freedom away from them.”

We had been talking for about a half an hour and hadn’t yet explicitly mentioned trauma-informed care or looked at a single information sheet.

Following the pause that comes about during good conversation, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study came up, and the point was made that most people who experience difficulties as adolescents and adults have some sort of trauma in their histories, some form of harm, and that there are a lot of different factors involved in what sort of life experiences a person will have, things like poverty and abuse.

The SRO from the alternative school nodded his head emphatically, “A lot of times it’s trauma on top of trauma.”

In the last few minutes of the meeting, a longtime collective member pulled out a sheaf of paper, “There’s this thing people do called a WRAP plan or a Mad Map and part of it is basically like you write down all the information you want people who are involved in your crisis to know, like if you have PTSD, or what triggers you to get into a bad state, what to do to support you.”

“In Mecklenburg County, for a while, the police department worked with a local peer-run service organization to make sure that people who were vulnerable to police intervention in crisis had a WRAP and a Psychiatric Advance Directive that officers could ask to see.”

The deputy from the alternative school got excited, “So, is this something we could ask people, ‘Do you have a WRAP?’ Do lots of people have these plans?”

A few people around the room shrugged. “Some people…they do WRAP in some places.”

“There are lots of WRAP facilitators around here…”

We listed off a few names of places that do WRAP, mentioned Mary Ellen Copeland’s site. The deputies who were taking notes wrote down the address. Hopefully they’ll look at the site and see some of the things that are being done in jails and schools.

In May, the Asheville Radical Mental Health Collective is planning on doing a Mad Maps workshop, introducing the practice of forging self-defined and self-determined paths to personal wellbeing and collective healing in resistance to cultures of economy that are brutally oppressive to some and extravagantly privileging to others.

Saying goodbye, the deputy who had thanked us at the outset of the afternoon in the coffeeshop said again how much they appreciated the opportunity to talk with us and that he hoped that we would stay in touch and follow up with more conversations.

“Really,” he said, “it means so much to us, because we don’t know what people live with, and people are all so different. This helps us to have more insight.”

Maybe we could talk with the Sheriff’s office about doing a community event with us, to offer information on community crisis resources, self-advocacy, and ways to support people in crisis, when and when not to involve law enforcement, basic crisis support skills…?

We could do some psychiatric advance directives, make some Mad Maps.

That’d be cool.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that several years ago, I was being taken to the hospital in handcuffs, sitting silently in the back seat, trying to curl into myself as I watched the trees and houses of my neighborhood slide by from a different perspective, a different size window, a different sort of car, with men in the front who had locked me into the back.

I understood what was happening and I understood that it was an insult and an injustice.

I also understood that the officers were just doing their job. I thought that, for a moment, standing in my kitchen and listening to me explain calmly and clearly why I was being sent to the hospital, one of the officers looked a little like he did not like his job on that particular night. He looked sincerely sorry for being in my home.

For some reason, that was a comfort.

There is now a companion piece to this on Mad in America: De-escalating Folks When Psychotic and Potentially Violent

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