The following article was written and submitted by Officer Lance Newkirchen of the Fairfield CT. Police Department.
Ask any police officer about their job today and they will all tell you the same thing—it has completely changed from just a few years back. Take the tragic events of September 11th, when it became clear that those living among us could be capable of unleashing mass destruction only previously seen on foreign soil. Then came the advent of criminal activity facilitated by computers—aka “cyber crimes”. Here a whole new generation of offenders found out how easy it was to use a computer to bilk people out of their life savings, or to bully and harass someone through popular social networking sites. Police agencies suddenly found themselves scrambling to develop high tech plans to combat these offenses. But perhaps one of the fastest growing areas of law that often gets overlooked, is that of people suffering from some form of a mental health or emotional condition. This can include someone suffering from bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia, or an individual with special needs living with Autism Spectrum Disorder. But this group also includes those undergoing deep emotional crisis often triggered by a traumatic event. Some examples include those who recently may have lost their job, someone who was the victim of a violent crime, or someone struggling with substance abuse issues.
It seems that this sector of the population is growing because medical science has been able to better diagnose and characterize many new brain disorders. But new societal integration programs, along with high profile awareness campaigns such as Autism Speaks, have really brought these issues to the forefront. It also appears that the changing economy and recent job stresses (and losses) have created a whole new group of people that now needs help. Individuals who have traditionally been able to cope and get through a normal day are now seeking assistance and support. Here, families and friends are feeling the strain for the first time and are often forgotten in the process. It is because of this that the Fairfield Police Department recently selected four of its officers, Timothy Stalling, Lance Newkirchen, Jennifer Siraco, and James Baker, along with Patrol Captain Don Smith, to attend a week long training held at renowned Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan to become certified as Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers.
The training was sponsored by the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, a non-profit education and research consortium created to better equip law enforcement agencies with the training and tools to more effectively serve their communities. The week-long training was intense with an in-depth examination of the stigma of mental illness, the new criteria for emergency transport and committal, the newest drugs used to treat disorders, the vast network of resources available, addiction challenges, engaging children with special needs, and patient confidentiality. But perhaps the most relevant aspect, was a deep dive into better understanding mood, thought, personality, cognitive, and anxiety disorders. As an example, officers learned how to quickly spot the difference between a bi-polar patient versus a schizophrenic one, and how anxiety disorders like OCD, PTSD, and panic disorders differ from each other. Once a condition was identified, instructors then discussed the best techniques to quickly diffuse a potentially high-risk situation based on the nuances within each classification. Officers were also coached on how to ensure that the families are taken care of.
Recently Officers Newkirchen and Siraco went to the residence of an elderly couple who were victims of a home invasion. Here, Siraco and I listened to the couple recant their experiences , and as part of our response we put them in touch with patrol officers assigned to their area for added piece of mind. We also met with neighbors to make them aware of the elderly couple’s situation and put them in contact with the Fairfield Senior Center for ongoing emotional support.
Fairfield Police Administrators are quick to point out that this training is in no way meant to replace existing approaches, but rather to enhance them. They also point out that all officers receive specialized training in this area at the police academy as a requirement for graduation, but the CIT training really takes things to the next level. When deciding whether to become part of this new initiative, the Fairfield Police had four specific goals in mind: Learn how to best deal with people suffering from deep emotional crisis in the field by effectively lowering the danger levels; Leverage the vast resources available to both patients and their families (ie. National Alliance on Mental Illness, Greater Bridgeport Community Mental Health Center, etc); Be able to network and share best practices across other police agencies; And become familiar with citizens who have existing needs and frequently reach out for help within the Fairfield emergency services community. Based on what these officers went through, it seems all of these criteria have been met.
According to Captain Don Smith, “The training these officers have received will enhance their ability to deal with situations involving persons in crisis as well as benefit the community as a whole and give the Fairfield Police Department another tool to help us meet our mission of ‘Making Fairfield Safer’”. It also appears to be right in line with Chief Gary MacNamara’s new vision which includes constantly challenging the department to be better as it strives to be an example for other police agencies. Specifically, the importance of evolving and adapting when delivering the best possible police services to the citizens of Fairfield and ultimately protecting the town.