Crisis intervention training: The other side of officer-involved shootings | MyWindsorNow.com

Crisis intervention training: The other side of officer-involved shootings

Tommy Simmons
tsimmons@greeleytribune.com

Ten minutes after Jocelyn Plascencia responded to the 911 call, the man still hadn't calmed down. He yelled, swore and gesticulated wildly. He also stuttered a great deal.

She'd arrived on the scene after a concerned neighbor called the police. The man told Plascencia, a Longmont police officer, the house was his, and he'd locked his keys inside. He obviously was confused; he couldn't tell her his address, nor could he remember his age, and he was showing no signs of quieting down.

She didn't try to match his anger. Instead, she leaned forward, made eye contact with him, and, in a level voice, asked if she could walk with him to help him find his house, since this house didn't seem to be the right one.

Her Crisis Intervention Training coach called for a timeout not long after, and she heaved an exhausted sigh.

The scenario was one of many played out during the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training course Plascencia took at the Loveland Police Department, along with several other northern Colorado police officers. The scenes are simulated but the tension isn't — Plascencia faced a professional actor who specializes in playing people with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues.

Crisis Intervention Training is one of many tools police use to help de-escalate situations. It was born out of tragedy in 1988, when a Memphis police officer shot and killed a man dealing with mental illness, in a situation similar to the one Plascencia worked through.

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Since then, the scrutiny police face from the public and media has only increased, especially in the post-Ferguson era.

Tensions over police-citizen relations have also hit close to home: Since 2014, Weld County has seen a total of 10 officer-involved shootings, seven of which ended in the death of a suspect. The Weld District Attorney's office cleared police of guilt in every one of those incidents, but the numbers still sparked concern.

Yet, police say, those statistics have to be taken in context.

"Prevention is hard to measure," said Capt. Tim Brown of the Loveland Police Department, one of Colorado's Crisis Intervention Training instructors. "People don't hear about the successful case resolutions that happen every hour of every day."

Those success stories are the result of untold hours of training and classes that help police maintain their poise in dangerous situations. The lives of suspects, residents and officers can be changed by the actions an officer takes in the span of seconds, often under extreme stress.

"When we take the average citizen in a citizen police academy and put them in situations an average officer might encounter, often they say, 'I'd have shot (the suspect),' or, 'I'd have hit (the suspect),' " said Sgt. Tim Sullivan of the Larimer County Sheriff's office, another training instructor.

Officer-involved shootings always make headlines. They are important, tragic events that need to be discussed. But most potential shootings don't happen in the first place, and that's because of the training officers receive.

Acting out

Ray Bueno didn't want to go to Crisis Intervention Training. In 2004, he was a 24-year-old officer with two years under his belt at the Firestone Police Department. He'd been on patrol. He'd handled calls. The training was touchy-feely stuff. He didn't need that.

The department sent him to Loveland for the weeklong course anyway. He described himself as "less than enthused."

Today, he's a training instructor.

The course focuses on helping police officers hone their verbal de-escalation skills, especially when interacting with mentally ill people or those under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

The goal is to use verbal skills to work out of a tense situation.

There's nothing sterile or censored about it. The scenarios can stretch on for an emotional 20 minutes and include everything from profanity and yelling to frustrating, circular conversations with actors who have spent years studying the ailments they're portraying.

The program first came to northern Colorado in 2004, sponsored by grant money. The grant money has since gone away, but Bueno, along with fellow instructors Brown and Sullivan, have kept it alive because they understand the program's value.

"The actors are very, very good," Bueno said. "It's a pretty stressful week. It's very intense. To date, it's the most difficult training I've ever done."

Role-play scenarios are nothing new for police training. Nationwide, the vast majority of departments do their own improvised scenarios. The difference, Bueno said, is those scenarios almost always involve officers practicing on each other. They don't feel nearly as real as Crisis Intervention Training, where police are face-to-face with actors they've never met before.

"We're bringing in people who for all (officers) know really could be crazy," said Joe Wilson of Twopenny Productions, an acting troupe that specializes in training. "You can't simulate this with people you know."

Wilson, who has been involved in training since 2006, knows how stressful the course can be on officers. He also understands its reputation as glorified sensitivity training among some police. He likes changing those officers' minds.

"Those are the ones for me it's most rewarding to see turn around," he said. "When Friday rolls around I can see it in their eyes when they realize the value (of the training)."

Bueno estimates his 180-degree shift came about halfway through the week.

It happened during an exercise meant to put police in the mind of a schizophrenic experiencing auditory hallucinations. Officers were seated at desks in a classroom. At the front of the classroom, an instructor gave them directions on how to draw simple pictures on a piece of paper. Behind the officers, 15 actors all spoke random, different words at the same time. The cacophony of 15 voices saying nonsensical things made it extremely difficult for Bueno to focus on what the instructor was asking him to do, he said.

"(Schizophrenic people) are trying to listen to you, but they have all of this going on," Bueno said. "It made me think, what if this was me? What if this was a family member — how would I want them to be treated?"

That insight into the mind of a mentally ill person is oftentimes new for officers, but the skills they sharpen in training aren't.

"This is tangible, specific training that just adds to what a lot of officers have been doing for years," said Sullivan. "We have guys on the street doing that every day."

Police across America have tens of thousands of interactions with the public daily, Sullivan said. Many of them are tense, like the ones the training imitates. Most of them don't make headlines because officers are able to de-escalate them.

Bueno agreed, but he still believes training is important.

"For the most part we're not teaching officers anything they don't already know," he said. "We're just honing the skills they already have. But this type of training isn't taught as much as it should be. De-escalation in general isn't taught as much as it should be."

Shoot/Don't shoot

As intense as Crisis Intervention Training gets, it's not physical. Officers do not have the option of using a Taser or a gun to resolve the situation, nor are they able to touch the actors at all. They work their way out of the situation with their words alone.

Officers can only react to what a person is doing. Sometimes that requires some use of force.

"I've come up against some very, very big guys and just said, 'Dear God, I hope this guy doesn't want to fight me,' " Bueno said. "Sometimes there's nothing you can do about it."

Even in those situations, officers strive to handle the situation with minimal violence. That's why, about 10 years ago, the Windsor Police Department invested in a MILO Range use-of-force simulator, known colloquially as the "shoot-don't-shoot" simulator.

It consists of a large screen as well as a number of fake police tools — a can of pepper spray, a Taser and a handgun. It also includes software that allows a vast array of scenarios to play out on the screen — everything from traffic stops and language barrier cases, to active shooter situations.

As officers work through the scenarios, they must talk and act as if it were happening in real life. Based on their reactions, the operator of the simulator can choose different paths for the scenario to take. Officers may have to use a Taser or pepper spray, or they may be forced to use a handgun, or they may be able to talk their way out of it.

"You'll find you're not always going to be shooting," said Sgt. Rick Cook, the head firearms instructor at the Windsor Police Department. "This expands officers' ability to use lesser means of force. It's about decision-making."

The simulator stays in Windsor, but Cook said police departments from all over Weld County use it. The goal, Cook said, is for officers to correct their mistakes in a safe environment.

Officers are able to think more clearly and make better decisions if they are in control of their thoughts. It means they're more likely to fall back on training they've received, such as crisis intervention or MILO Screen simulations.

"You have to spend time getting in control of your breathing and not having tunnel vision," said Steve Perkins, a training officer at the Greeley Police Department. "Getting in control of yourself is paramount."

Every officer in the department trains for these tense situations once per month, Perkins said. He added that in 2016, Greeley police officers have received more mental health and de-escalation training hours per officer than any other type of training.

The inevitable worst day

Patrol Deputy Kevin Malovich of the Weld County Sheriff's office has made a career out of teaching skills he and his colleagues hope they never have to use.

Malovich is the defensive tactics instructor for the sheriff's office. He teaches deputies how to handle themselves in the worst-case scenario, when they're forced into a physical altercation.

He's quick to emphasize these are defensive tactics.

"We can't hurt people," he said. "Our job is to control them."

Every officer interviewed for this story said police are never looking for a fight. But the vast majority of them also acknowledged sometimes it's inevitable.

"We train for the inevitable worst day when we need to be prepared," Malovich said.

For that reason, Weld County Sheriff's detention deputies — those who staff the jail — receive 32 hours of defensive tactics training. Patrol deputies, who have jurisdiction throughout Weld County, are put through 44 hours of training.

Malovich has a background in mixed martial arts, but he said the training he does for the sheriff's office is nothing like traditional fighting styles. It's based on the FBI's program, and its focus is self-defense, while still forcing one's opponent under control.

The goal, he said, is to create distance between the deputy and the suspect, as well as to create time to get the situation under control.

"I don't want to go to the ground, I want to be on my feet," Malovich said. "It's a matter of how do I escape, get up, create distance and go to my less lethal tools."

Even in the thick of a fight, though, deputies are trained to try to be as calm as possible in an attempt to minimize the harm done. That means being as respectful as possible, even when taking someone to the ground if they have to. It's also a cornerstone of Greeley's defensive tactics training.

"We have to be the calm ones no matter what's going on," Perkins said.

Both Perkins and Malovich said the mental aspect of the job is vital when dealing with a physical altercation. It begins long before an officer or a deputy even starts defensive tactics training.

"Not everyone is suited for this," Perkins said. "They don't have the cognitive or physical abilities to do this job under stress."

Malovich said part of the training process is weeding out people who might cause trouble.

"I look for the guy I know can't control himself," he said. "We don't want that person out there."

'They All Said the Same Thing'

Bueno, the Crisis Intervention instructor from Firestone, chose to become a police officer because he came from a law enforcement family. Growing up, he looked up to the police officers he knew and wanted to do what they did. He wanted to help people.

That instinct is what Brown said police agencies look for in their new hires. He said that's why training only amplifies what police officers are doing already.

"They all came on the job because they all said the same thing in the interview," he said. "They want to help people."

Twopenny Productions

Joe Wilson formed Twopenny Productions in 2008 out of the remains of an earlier acting troupe.

“In 2008, when the (earlier) company went under, the field was flooded with crooks who didn’t pay actors and defrauded money,” Wilson said.

His goal was to put together a reputable group of actors law enforcement could rely on to help with the training. All of Twopenny’s actors undergo background checks, and all are required to complete a ride-along with an officer trained in crisis intervention. All of them are professional actors with other acting jobs as well.

“It’s not an easy thing to keep a group of actors sane, together and doing this,” Wilson said. “We’re as drained at the end of the day as the (police). But this is a way to make a difference and still draw a paycheck.”

This series

This is the fifth in an occasional series exploring police shootings in Weld County.

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