The Columbia Heights Police Department, along with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Department, is leading an effort to better prepare officers when they encounter people who are suffering from mental illness.

The effort combines online training and hands-on scenarios with actors trained by the Barbara Schneider Foundation, which works to improve the response to those in mental health crisis and prevent mental health crises. The Foundation was formed in response to the death of Barbara Schneider in 2000, when police shot her during a confrontation in a mental health crisis call.

The online curriculum, created by Metropolitan State University, takes four to five hours and can be completed in increments by officers between calls or during time designated by their agency. Participating agencies include police departments in Fridley, Blaine, Coon Rapids, Lino Lakes and Ramsey.

Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau said he went through the one-week Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training about 10 years ago, which was developed by the Memphis Police Department in 1988.

Nadeau said he saw a lot of Anoka County agencies were not providing officers the training, and that sometimes when people with mental illness experience crises, officers often have little or no training in how to recognize or de-escalate those types of situations.

He said sending people suffering from mental health issues to jail or giving them a ticket isn’t always the best way to handle the situation.

“Many officers lack information on agencies and resources that are needed for successful problem solving,” Nadeau said. “This training program was created to prepare offices to recognize mental health issues and respond as effectively as possible.”

Training sessions were 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 29 at the Columbia Heights Police Department. Officers only needed to attend one of the sessions.

Corey Mills, an on-site coordinator with the Barbara Schneider Foundation, began as an actor and now coordinates trainings and provides the actors with feedback.

He said it’s about providing a safe place for officers to step out of their comfort zone. There were five actors and five coaches at both of the training days.

Mills said de-escalating a crisis involves connecting with the individual and treating them like a human, listening, establishing trust and recognizing they might be dealing with a mental illness. These techniques are used to talk people to a calmer place so they can get the help they need, which may involve getting them to a hospital.

Additional partners that helped facilitate the training program were Anoka County Human Services, People Incorporated, and the Lee Carlson Center for Mental Health and Well-Being, based in Fridley.

Patty Halvorson, marketing and development manager with the Lee Carlson Center, said the training program included a panel discussion to further delve into mental health related interactions with police. She said a number of clients are involved in crisis type calls, adding that “inherent with mental health issues are crises and problems that require help.”

Debbie Kidder volunteers as an advocate for the Center. Her son, Eric, was a heroin addict and died in March 2009 at age 20. He was a 2007 Fridley High School graduate.

Kidder said her son had various interactions with local police departments, and she attends programs to share Eric’s story so people can learn from it.

Asked why she chose to participate in the officer training program in Columbia Heights, Kidder said, “… It’s more of a sense of appreciation for the support (the officers) provided us during a difficult year. I’m grateful for the way they treated Eric with such dignity and respect during his most difficult times. That’s really why I do it, to try to give back to them.

“The face of drug addiction is unrecognizable,” she added. “It can be anybody.

“I see the police as very anxious to sharpen their skills in recognizing crisis and mental illness.”

Three of Deb Fjeld’s four children have significant mental health issues. She said she would like people to understand that mental illness affects children as well as adults, so it’s important to have that perspective.

“Mental illness is not a parenting problem. … It’s a mental health issue,” she said.

Of the officer training program, Fjeld said, “This is a fabulous idea. … The more we educate our officers about mental illness, the better off they will be.

“I hope that when they come into a situation with a person who is acting erratically, they use some of these techniques as a first line (of defense) rather than resorting to force or threats.

“I think this program should be expanded to train group home individuals and school personnel because it’s got a lot of value,” Fjeld added.

Maggie Beranek, an officer with the Columbia Heights Police Department for 2 1/2 years, participated in CIT training in November 2011.

“As police officers, a very large percentage of the people we deal with on a daily basis are suffering from mental illness and are in crisis,” she said.

“A big goal is to use these skills to try to not have to get into use of force situations … if you can de-escalate somebody by talking with them.

Beranek said she looks at the CIT training as “another tool in her belt” and used it a week after completing the training.

The daylong training, she said, gives her the ability to train her partners, and with budget cuts, not all departments can send some officers or all officers to the weeklong training.

“It’s not necessarily new information, but a new way of looking at it,” Beranek said. “It really forces us to step out of our comfort zone. People learn the most when they step out of their comfort zone.”

Nadeau said this first program in Anoka County trained about 50 officers; all of the Columbia Heights officers have received training. Another training program is being planned for later this year in Ramsey.