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Mental Health Crisis Training for Police Officers Questioned

Trainer injured when an officer did the wrong thing

Sep. 20, 2016
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For good reason, police officers in Milwaukee County and around the country undergo Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to learn how to deal with those who are having a behavioral or mental health crisis. 

“A true CIT officer is an amazing officer,” said Sandy Pasch, a former state representative and psychiatric nurse who helped to launch CIT in Milwaukee about a decade ago. “They save lives. They know what to do. They get people the resources they need and they do it in a way that demonstrates respect and compassion.” 

Currently, local law enforcement agencies require at least some—if not all—of their officers to undergo CIT training. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Milwaukee partners with local law enforcement agencies to provide training, but the Milwaukee Police Department conducts its own training. 

The rigorous training involves 40 hours of in-depth sessions on how to assess individuals with a mental health issue, de-escalate a crisis and steer them to services if they need them instead of arresting them. Experts in the field are brought in to give their perspective, and at the end of the 40 hours, three trainers enact typical behavioral health crisis scenarios in which the officers must utilize their CIT training to resolve the situation.

Sue Schuler, former director of nursing for acute and crisis services at Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health Division, who with Pasch helped to launch CIT in Milwaukee, said the original training sessions were in-depth and a true partnership between mental health experts and law enforcement.

“We are very clear that we don’t want police officers in harm’s way,” Schuler said. “But there are ways of being with people in crisis and de-escalating them. It’s the best outcome for everyone. Police are safe, the person is safe and they get the services they need.”

Clearly, CIT training has the potential to benefit officers and those they serve every day.

But one September 2015 training session went very, very wrong when a strictly hands-off role play became harshly hands on. 

Advocate Injured During Training 

Mary Neubauer is a well-known, well-respected and outspoken advocate for those with mental illnesses. In addition to coping with her own mental health struggles, Neubauer earned a master’s of social work, works part time as a certified peer specialist, sits on the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board and is co-chair of the Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force. If you’ve had any involvement in local behavioral health services, you know Mary Neubauer.

She’s been involved in CIT training since its inception, and has never had an issue during these trainings until Sept. 28, 2015, when she was helping to train officers from Franklin, Greendale, Greenfield and West Allis by enacting a role play in which she portrays a woman selling a magic potion and causing a commotion in the street. The role play was conducted during the final hours of the 40-hour training.

Officers undergoing training are repeatedly told that the role plays are strictly hands off. After all, in a real-world crisis situation, an officer is supposed to use his or her CIT skills to de-escalate and defuse the situation without touching or in any way forcing an individual to do something—unless, of course, the officer’s safety is threatened. 

Unfortunately for Neubauer, one officer ignored the hands-off instructions.

“During the role play I have this bag of stuff that I just kind of fling around and say, ‘Potions! Get your magic potion,’” Neubauer explained to the Shepherd. “I literally wasn’t into my role and the cop walks up to me, grabs my left arm below the shoulder and above my elbow. He grabs on to it and I back off. He grabs it tighter, torques it and then he finally lets go.”

Peter Hoeffel, executive director of NAMI Greater Milwaukee, which conducted the training, immediately stopped the role play and repeated the instruction that officers should keep their hands off.

Stunned and feeling traumatized, Neubauer continued the training, but the damage was done and left both emotional and physical scars.

The rotator cuff in her left shoulder was completely torn at multiple locations. She underwent shoulder reconstruction surgery and rotator cuff repair on June 30, had surgery earlier this month on her hand—which she harmed due to compensating for her shoulder injury—and underwent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which in part was related to her injury. She has taken long absences from work since the injury, has had bills go to a collection agency because of her sporadic employment and is facing a long recovery.

“My life consists of going to medical appointments,” Neubauer said. “I think I’ve gone to two or three meetings. I’ve watched the paint dry on my walls so much that I’m ready for it to get painted again. I try to laugh it off but I’ve had more meltdowns here than I care to keep track of. People see the public side of me, they don’t see the other side of me.” 

Officer Hasn’t Come Forward 

Neubauer said the entire training session had sort of gone awry. The one other expert engaged in role play was also touched, Neubauer said, in violation of the hands-off rule, and many officers were upset that they’d had to secure their weapons during training. 

She chalks it up to the fact that some local police departments—including Milwaukee’s following the shooting of Dontre Hamilton as well as West Allis’—mandate CIT training. That’s contrary to CIT best practices in which officers volunteer for this highly specialized training. The result, Neubauer says, is that some officers forced to undergo 40 hours of training resent it, aren’t engaged and don’t retain their knowledge. 

Neubauer is still trying to determine which officer injured her but no one has stepped forward and she doesn’t have an attorney. She said NAMI’s Hoeffel contacted the West Allis Police Department, which hosted the training, but hasn’t been able to identify the officer, either.

With the help of a friendly attorney, in January Neubauer sent a notice of claim to each of the suburbs involved in the Sept. 28 session. Under state law, she is entitled to up to $50,000 in compensation.

She’s heard from the Franklin and Greenfield departments, which sent letters of disallowance—basically stating that one of their officers was not at fault. She hasn’t heard a peep from Greendale.

The Greendale Police Department didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.

West Allis notified Neubauer that the matter was under investigation and sent her a list of attendees.

West Allis Police Chief Patrick Mitchell told the Shepherd that in general CIT training has helped his officers but that he couldn’t comment on Neubauer’s claim and didn’t know if the officer who injured her was from his department.

“I am aware that there is a trainer that has made a claim against the City of West Allis, but that claim has not been completed yet,” Mitchell said. “It’s still in the investigative process.” 

Neubauer said the Sept. 28 CIT training raises a host of questions about how officers are treating those they encounter on the job. 

“If this is what an officer did during a role play, what are they like on the street?” Neubauer wondered. 

Pasch said that she’d like to get away from mandated training and perhaps do some training with all officers and in-depth, specialized CIT training with officers who truly want to work with those having a mental health crisis.

As for Neubauer’s injury during the September training session, Pasch said she was “appalled.”

“I feel like Mary was really let down in this whole process,” Pasch said. “She has been volunteering her time to improve relationships and outcomes for people with mental illness and then this is what happens. I think everyone involved dropped the ball. I think Mary should be compensated for what she’s been through.”

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