Sessions designed to reduce involvement of law enforcement personnel in cases involving people with mental health disorders

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FARMINGTON — San Juan County law enforcement officials recently participated in crisis intervention training that helped educate officers on identifying and de-escalating encounters with people in crisis.

The training was part of an effort by community stakeholders to provide better support for mental health services and reduce the involvement of law enforcement personnel in cases involving people with mental health disorders.

The San Juan County Mental Health Task Group was formed following the approval of House Joint Memorial 17 in 2011. It called on New Mexico law enforcement agencies and detention centers to develop humane and effective strategies to respond to people who may have mental health disorders.

Lt. Al Jamison of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office is the chairman of the task group, which includes representatives from various agencies including the Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington police departments, Childhaven, ATB Behavioral Health Services, the San Juan Regional Medical Center, Presbyterian Medical Services and the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

The sheriff's office presented its first crisis intervention training Feb. 13-17 at the sheriff's office building in Aztec.

Jamison said the training is the first step in building a system in the county to help mental health providers connect with people in crisis to receive treatment and avoid being incarcerated.

About 30 people participated in the 40-hour course, including officers from the four law enforcement agencies and employees from the San Juan County public defender's and district attorney's offices, and the adult detention center.

"I think it had a huge impact on a lot of the guys that didn't have the training to talk to people in crisis," Jamison said.

It took Jamison about eight months to organize the class and to have the curriculum properly accredited. A donation of $15,000 from San Juan Regional helped pay for the first class and a portion of an upcoming second class.

There were two days of lectures and presentations from area doctors to help explain and identify mental illnesses for officers, including Alzheimer's disease, Jamison said.

Dr. Alan Emamdee, a psychiatrist at San Juan Regional, along with his wife, Dr. Nausika Prifti, taught a five-hour course covering different types of mental illnesses including mood disorders, schizophrenia disorders and anxiety disorders. They also educated officers on different types of medications.

During their talk, Emamdee also spoke to the officers about developing communication and interview skills with people in crisis. Emamde and Prifti also shared information on how law enforcement personnel should approach people and identify people with possible mental disorders.

"We tried to teach them how to approach them without bothering them and without exciting them," Emamdee said.

Some of the tips Emamdee gave included approaching people from the front and not the back, avoiding quick movements and maintaining eye contact.

He was happy about the opportunity to raise awareness of mental disease and illness in the area.

Two days were dedicated to one-on-one training scenarios in which attendees worked with actors trained to act as a person in crisis, including a lost elderly person diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It was designed for officers to learn how to de-escalate a situation and build a rapport with people in crisis to avoid the use of force.

Martin Olsen, a officer on the Farmington police crisis intervention team, helped organize the one-on-one training scenarios. He believes the active listening lessons benefited the officers the most.

He thinks it is important for officers to communicate with people to help determine what medications they might be taking and what doctors they might be seeing.

"A lot of people we are called to are in crisis and need assistance," Olsen said. "The officer needs to recognize they are in a specific crisis."

Jamison hopes to continue growing the sheriff's office crisis intervention team of eight members. He said the sheriff's office has a database of people that deputies have had negative contact with. The CIT members visit them and see how they can help, including making referrals to local services to provide treatment or aid.

Jamison said he was happy with the progress being made by the group.

"That's our goal at the sheriff's office — to provide people with mental illness with better care," Jamison said.

One new program the county mental health task group is planning to introduce in the fall is visiting area schools to promote awareness of mental illness.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

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