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Police crisis intervention requires training with professional performers 

Acting with purpose

click to enlarge Deputy Jim Dodge listens to an actor playing a woman who’s locked herself in a bathroom.
  • Deputy Jim Dodge listens to an actor playing a woman who’s locked herself in a bathroom.

Shale C. LePage always thought if he made it big in Hollywood, he’d find meaningful ways to give back to the community.

But the 46-year-old professional actor knows his part-time gig in Colorado Springs with C WORX, a company that connects actors with law enforcement agencies to provide crisis intervention training, means he can make a difference without being a big-shot celebrity.

“If I could do this job every day, I would. Because this is the most beneficial work I’ve ever done,” LePage says. “If I never acted in another short film or a movie or I never got onstage again, but I only did this type of acting, this is what I would do.”

Officers who’ve been through the training have a similar sentiment.

As El Paso County and the state deal with a growing shortage of psychiatric beds and mental health care providers — and stigma around mental illness is becoming less prevalent — police officers, sheriff’s deputies and 911 dispatchers increasingly find themselves dealing with mental health-related calls.

Honing gun-shooting skills is as easy as setting up a target at a range. Self-defense classes lend expertise in hand-to-hand combat. But how do officers train to keep someone from jumping off a bridge, or to talk someone out of a locked bathroom stall?

That’s where LePage and his peers come in. As actors train to play characters with mental health issues that range from substance-use disorders to schizophrenia, and they provide a way for officers to practice de-escalation techniques in a safe, but realistic environment (See “CIT acting 101,” below).

The CIT model was developed in Memphis, Tennessee, after an officer-involved shooting in 1987, in which a black man with a history of mental illness was killed by white officers. To address the resulting fallout, the mayor of Memphis convened a task force with law enforcement and mental health professionals, whose efforts led the police department to implement a crisis intervention team.

Other police departments across the country had begun to adopt Memphis’ model by the early 2000s. Since then, it’s evolved as departments realize the training can offer valuable tools to any officer.

“Originally, CIT was mostly for those that wanted to have some specialized training and be able to help people with mental issues,” says police Sgt. Eric Frederic, who leads the program for the Colorado Springs Police Department, “but the way that our department has taken a look at it is that it’s just a good de-escalation tactic that can be used for anybody in crisis.”

click to enlarge CS INDY GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION
  • CS Indy Graphic Illustration

The police department, sheriff’s office and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Colorado Springs now each host one week-long training a year. A total of 30 officers, deputies and civilian law enforcement employees (such as 911 dispatchers and community service officers) can enroll in each of the trainings, and Frederic says that while the goal for both law enforcement agencies is to have all officers and deputies take the training, the 90 annual spots fill up quickly.

In the Colorado Springs Police Department, about one-third of all sworn officers have gone through the training, Frederic says. About one-sixth of El Paso County sheriff’s deputies have received it, according to numbers provided by spokesperson Jackie Kirby.

Frederic concedes that if the police department meets hiring goals set by the city (about 120 officers), the agency will have a “hard time” getting all the new recruits trained in crisis intervention.

“[CIT] can be quite expensive and time-consuming, but it is very valuable,” points out John Camper, president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.

The association doesn’t have an official stance on the training, but when Camper served as chief of the Grand Junction Police Department, he says he set and met the goal of getting 65 percent of officers through it.

“Most people who have gone through [CIT] say it’s about the best training they’ve ever had,” Camper adds.

In the Pueblo area, which hasn’t experienced the same rapid growth as El Paso County, law enforcement agencies have trained higher proportions of their officers in crisis intervention.

Since the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office and Pueblo Police Department began holding joint trainings in 2006, 65 percent of Pueblo police officers and 85 percent of sworn deputies in Pueblo County have received the training, according to agency spokespeople.

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