Jeff Humphrey

Reducing Conflicts with Mental Health Patients

Jeff Humphrey, Media Manager, 509.625.6308

Friday, January 17, 2020 at 12:43 p.m.

When dispatchers send Spokane police to deal with a person suffering from mental health problems, what happens next can be very difficult for everyone involved.

“It’s a very stressful situation for anybody, let alone someone who is in crisis,” said Officer David Dunkin.

By design, a person who is in crisis attracts a lot of resources including multiple cops, paramedics and a waiting ambulance. All things that can improve patient safety or, agitate them even further.

“And of course we’re dressed in uniforms, we’re wearing gun belts,” Dunkin said.

“And I realize, us showing up, in and of itself, can be intimidating,” added Officer Graig Butler.

And that’s why Spokane police officers like Butler and Dunkin started spending time with patients at Eastern State Hospital.

“So, going out there, interacting on an individual level and explaining to them, really de-mystifying, why police do what they do, was my number one goal,” explained Butler.

One out of every four calls Spokane police respond to involves someone suffering a mental health crisis.

Now, a new program called “Cop Talk”, short for, Community Outreach With Patients Through Affirmative Law Enforcement Conversations, intends to make those interactions safer.

“If we can better educate them about how to engage in a police interaction, then everyone wins,” predicted Butler.

The Cop Talk program aims to reduce the number of times officers have to use force to resolve someone’s mental health crisis.

Officers visiting Eastern are learning which police tactics tend to trigger an aggressive response from patients.

“And so, if I can take back a trigger say, that I learned from one patient was, ‘I don’t like it when you put you put your hands on me before you tell me why I’m going to be placed in handcuffs,’” Butler said.

The Cop Talk program is also urging patients to disclose their disorders as soon as police arrive on scene, so officers can better avoid a use of force.

“If we know there is some behavior that will trigger you and makes things worse, and we can accommodate, I will do that all day long. I will try to make things easier for you,” pledged Dunkin.

Another Cop Talk goal is to make it easier for Eastern patients to transition back into our community.

So far, more than 35 of them have signed up to meet with police just before they are released from the hospital.

“Operation Safe Hand Off” pairs officers and mental professionals with patients just in case they have problems adjusting.

“The person knows, if things are going bad, if I’m in trouble, if I have issues with my roommate, whatever it may be, they know who to call and they will know who that team will be if they respond,” explained Butler.

Spokane police officers will always have to enforce the law, but their department is also looking for new ways to protect the public, while helping mental health patients with their recovery.

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