At age 18, Jeffrey Shapiro’s behavior began to shift. By age 23, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

And, in 2002, when Shapiro, now 34, had stopped taking his medication, he had a hallucinatory relapse while living in his parent’s Oak Park home. Concerned for his welfare, they called Family Services’ (now Thrive Counseling Center) 24/7 crisis intervention line, and a team from Thrive, along with Oak Park police officers, were dispatched to the scene.

“At that point I was not really able to get off the couch. So, the police officers took the time to help me understand that going to the hospital was the best thing for me,” says Shapiro, an active advocate with the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), and recovery specialist in Thrive’s TLC program. “I didn’t want to go at first, but they just dealt with me in the exact right way, and now over the years I have realized that being hospitalized really was the best thing.”

A decade or so later, Shapiro, who is living with his schizophrenia, says he would not have gotten to the point of recovery that he is at now if it had not been for what happened then.

That Oak Park police officers have become more attuned to mental health issues facing individuals they come in contact with is not by accident.

OPPD’s shift in focus came when Rick Tanksley was promoted to chief 12 years ago. Since then, 22 officers, including Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose, have undergone NAMI’s 40 hour Crisis Intervention Team program and are now certified Crisis Intervention Specialists, Ambrose says.

The department’s overall aim, says Ambrose, is for the full complement of the force to become CIT certified in the next five or six years. Currently, an abbreviated training on the topic is protocol for every officer, he says.

Kristen Keleher, Thrive’s crisis coordinator, says her group answers 75 to 100 crisis calls from Oak Park and River Forest per month, ranging from mental health “wellness checks” to individuals experiencing a psychotic break.

The number is on the rise, says Keleher, because of the ongoing NAMI Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainings which OPPD officers continue to undergo.

“The officers are calling us more to accompany them to a scene because they are picking up on signs that otherwise, without the training they have received, would be too subtle for them to know,” Keleher says.

Since its inception in 1988, NAMI’s CIT programming has been a local initiative designed to improve the way law enforcement, and the community, respond to people experiencing mental health crises. Nationwide, the community model has been built on the development of strong partnerships between police departments, mental health provider agencies, and the individuals and families affected by mental illness, says Pat Doyle, NAMI Metro Suburban’s education coordinator.

“An important piece of the training they receive is being able to recognize the early warning signs of mental illness, such as anxiety, panic disorder, OCD, depression, bi-polar and schizophrenia,” Doyle says. “There is a lot of shame and embarrassment around these illnesses. The number one way to reduce stigma is by people sharing their stories. That was part of their training, where the police officers get to hear from people directly.”

A new focus

“In working with Pat from NAMI, and working with Thrive, we have learned that 25 percent of the population has some type of mental illness,” says Ambrose, the deputy chief. “That being said, it is important for our officers to be trained to respond to citizens who have a mental illness, and not only work with them, but also work with their family members. We’re not just doing this because there are incidents throughout the country. Chief Tanksley recognized the need for this in Oak Park when he became chief, so we are ahead of the curve, and were one of the first departments in the state to send officers to get this training.”

Officer Robert Primak, one of Oak Park’s resident beat officers, says his biggest takeaway from the training has been incorporating the precepts of compassion, respect, “being there for them, and letting them trust you” when called in to these crises situations that often are not what they seem.

“The biggest thing for us is de-escalating the situation. During our training one of the NAMI presenters came in and told us how he was treated by a particular officer,” Primak says. “They put a Burger King hat on his head.

When he was done with his crisis and had moved on, he told us that he remembered that, how he wasn’t treated as an individual. They were making fun of him.”

Likewise, Officer Raphael Murphy, another beat officer, says he now better comprehends the importance of taking a moment to assess a situation, rather than just reacting to it.

“Before, the previous methods of assessing a situation could involve just tackling somebody, holding him down and squeezing him in the back of an ambulance and sending him off to a hospital,” says Murphy. “Whereas if you have the training, you can try to establish a way of communicating with that person and hopefully work through a process by which they can understand that you’re there to help them and they can cooperate with you so they don’t end up in circumstances where they’re going to get hurt.”

Ambrose says in situations involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, he would “rather show up and realize that we are not needed and leave, rather than have it wait until it turns into an issue in which we need several officers,” so he encourages anyone in these circumstances who feels ill at ease to call 911.

Shapiro says he is thankful for what happened then, and appreciative of the ongoing NAMI training the police receive.

“It is important that the police have an open line of communications with the person [in crisis] not just the support system [because] It should be the person talking with the police, too,” Shapiro says. “…even if it is five minutes, to say ‘you know what, we are just looking out for you.’ [Hearing that from the police] makes all the difference in the world.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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