How Simulation Training Helps Officers Hone Crisis Response Skills

Simulation training from VirTra can help officers learn how to effectively communicate with someone experiencing a mental health crisis to delay or avoid use of force. (VirTra)

 

By Margarita Birnbaum for Police1 BrandFocus

The Los Angeles and San Antonio police departments are among agencies that have partnered with mental health professionals to handle emergency calls that involve people in emotional distress. In doing that, police departments hope to reduce use-of-force incidents.

Nicole M. Florisi, a former police sergeant and current instructor at the Force Science Institute, says departments must offer their officers targeted training to help reduce use-of-force incidents involving people in emotional distress.

Specifically, the veteran SWAT officer and counselor says departments need to educate officers about behaviors associated with mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. That training should include effective communication skills so officers can learn to successfully interact with people in emotional distress.

To get the most informative and realistic experience, Florisi recommends simulation-based training programs, such as those offered by VirTra, because the information and skills officers learn through simulation training involves mental and physical elements, as well as decision-making, and therefore sticks much more than what they learn through classroom lectures and passively watching videos.

“How we train most of the time isn’t really how the brain learns,” said Florisi, a part-time officer with the Jerome Police Department in Arizona. “We need to be in reality-based, scenario-based integrative training that hits all the components to create both psychological arousal and physiological arousal.”

She believes that simulation-based training may help prevent excessive force incidents raging from unnecessary arrests to fatal shootings.

Properly communicating with someone in emotional distress, Florisi says, “can be the difference between life and death. It can also be the difference in keeping your career or not.”

COMMUNICATION APPROACH IS CRITICAL

Certainly, most encounters between police officers and people who have a mental illness do not end in use of force, in part because many of those encounters have nothing to do with a person’s mental illness. Data, however, show that officers spend more time dealing with mental disturbance calls than they do on calls involving traffic accidents, burglaries and assaults.

The more information and context officers have about the circumstances that triggered an incident, says Florisi – such as a divorce, change in medication, loss of a loved one or drug use – the more likely that they will be able to keep everyone safe.

“Helping officers identify what type of communication is best in those situations is what’s really critical in dealing with anybody, not just someone who has a mental illness,” said Florisi, who wrote VirTra’s mental illness simulation curriculum.

Officers who go through VirTra’s mental illness training program learn basic information about depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other disorders, including the physiological processes and harmful behaviors associated with them. They also learn the best tone, words and phrases to use to effectively communicate with someone experiencing a mental health crisis due to illness or substance abuse.

Two common mistakes officers make when dealing with a person in crisis, says Florisi, are:

  • Thinking that they can make the person obey them.
  • Thinking t​​hat they can reason with the person.


VirTra’s simulation training drives home that officers need to learn to respond to the individual’s behavior, rather than the emotional trigger.

“What we’re trying to do is reduce the emotion that’s driving the behavior,” Florisi said.

AWARENESS OF TRIGGERS, BLIND SPOTS IN TRAINING

Perhaps one of the most important things officers learn in the simulation training is managing their own emotions that may affect their job performance.

Many officers live with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses and aren’t aware of how deeply they are affected by them or how their illnesses affect their job performance, Florisi says. In addition, many don’t understand how the body’s physiological responses to stress may affect their decision-making process.

“There’s a misconception, from the public but also among police officers, that you’re immune to human psychology and human factors, “Florisi said. “The brain doesn’t work like that.”

It’s important for officers to be watchful of the verbal and nonverbal triggers that may cause them to become aggressive, she says, which can lead to inappropriate use of force and potentially dire consequences.

One of the benefits of simulation training with reality-based scenarios is that officers can identify areas where they need improvement when responding to emotionally charged, high-stakes calls. As instructors shift the way the scenarios unfold to challenge officers during the simulation sessions, they can learn how to identify when they are responding poorly to a situation and use breathing and other techniques to calm down.

“We are tasked with the sanctity of life, and that requires some professional neutrality,” Florisi said. “To achieve our police objective, officers have to be able to successfully navigate their working environment — and part of that is learning to regulate emotion and communicate effectively.”

Visit VirTra for more information on mental illness and de-escalation training.

Justice Department Partnership Finds More Than 300 Unidentified Persons Through Fingerprint Analysis

The Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs recently announced an important milestone reached through a partnership between OJP’s National Institute of Justice and the FBI.

The collaborative effort to match unidentified persons’ fingerprints to biometric and criminal history information made its 300th identification in March 2021.

“This latest milestone affirms the essential role that forensic science plays in solving crimes and ensuring public safety,” said NIJ Acting Director Jennifer Scherer. “Our partnership with the FBI continues to yield impressive results in the face of daunting investigative challenges, establishing identities out of the thinnest of evidence and delivering long-awaited answers to families of the missing, often after years of anguish and uncertainty.”

In February 2017, NIJ’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUs) program and the FBI Laboratory began searching unidentified persons’ fingerprints through the FBI’s NextGeneration Identification System (NGI). The NGI system is the world’s largest and most efficient electronic repository of biometric and criminal history information and enables analysis of poor-quality entries in the FBI’s fingerprint database, allowing more focused searches and increasing the likelihood of identification, even with prints that have been searched many times in the past.

NamUs is currently the only national database of cases involving unidentified persons, with currently over 13,638 cases.

FBI Acting Assistant Director Eric Pokorak of the Laboratory Division said, “The FBI Laboratory is proud of our partnership with NIJ, the critical forensic support we provide toNAMUS, and through that collaboration offering a degree of solace to the loved ones of the missing.”

Since then, 2,647 fingerprint cards have been examined, resulting in the current total of312 identifications, many of which are cold case homicide investigations. Of that number, 34were homicide victims, and another 83 are undetermined cases which may be homicides.

In one recent case, an unidentified person’s prints were of such poor quality that they could not previously be submitted for fingerprint searches. Using NGI, the decedent was identified as a migrant worker, and the process of finding Next of Kin was started. Had the card not been uploaded into NamUs, the person would have gone unidentified indefinitely.

More information about NamUs and the FBI Latent Print Support Unit can be found at www.namus.gov and https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/latent-print, respectively.

Information about the National Institute of Justice is available at www.nij.gov.

Apply Now for Patrick Leahy Bulletproof Vest Partnership Funding

The Patrick Leahy Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP), created by the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Act of 1998 is a unique U.S. Department of Justice initiative​​ designed to provide a critical resource to state and local law enforcement.

ONE MILLION VESTS: Since 1999, the BVP program has awarded more than 13,000 jurisdictions a total of $522 million in federal funds for the purchase of over one million vests (1,441,013) as of November 2020.

NEW: The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) is pleased to announce the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 BVP application funding period. Applications for FY 2021 BVP funds will be accepted beginning April 29, 2021. All applications must be submitted online by 6:00 p.m. (Eastern Time), June 14, 2021. A SAM registration is required for 2021 BVP applicants.

NEW: The Fiscal Year 2020 BVP awards have been announced. See the complete list of FY 2020 BVP awards.

System for Award Management (SAM) Registration Requirement:  Jurisdictions must be registered in SAM in order to receive access to FY 2018-2020 BVP award funds. Jurisdictions not registered with SAM are strongly encouraged to access the SAM website at https://www.sam.gov/SAM/ as soon as possible in order to obtain information on and complete the online SAM registration process.  For more information about renewing and updating your existing SAM registration, or registering in SAM as a new entity, please visit https://fsd.gov/fsd-gov/answer.do?sysparm_number=KB0011081.  The SAM Helpdesk can be reached at 866-606-8220.

Documentation Requirement:  Grantees are required to keep documentation to support the BVP vest application and payment requests for at least a three year period.

Other Federal Funds:  Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) funds or other federal funding sources may not be used to pay for that portion of the bullet proof vest (50%) that is not covered by BVP funds. JAG or other federal funds may be used to purchase vests for an agency, but they may not be used as the 50% match for BVP purposes.

Uniquely Fitted Armor Vest Requirement – Jurisdictions receiving funding for reimbursement of body armor purchases must have in place a uniquely fitted vest requirement when the FY 2019 BVP applications are submitted.

In the BVP Program, “uniquely fitted vests” means protective (ballistic or stab-resistant) armor vests that conform to the individual wearer to provide the best possible fit and coverage, through a combination of:  

  • 1) correctly-sized panels and carrier, determined through appropriate measurement, and
  • 2) properly adjusted straps, harnesses, fasteners, flaps, or other adjustable features.  

The requirement that body armor be “uniquely fitted” does not necessarily require body armor that is individually manufactured based on the measurements of an individual wearer.  In support of the Office of Justice Programs’ efforts to improve officer safety, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International has made available the Standard Practice for Body Armor Wearer Measurement and Fitting of Armor (Active Standard ASTM E3003) available at no cost.  The Personal Armor Fit Assessment checklist, is excerpted from ASTM E3003.

In addition, a certification section has been added to the 2019 application (in the BVP system) stating the jurisdictions and law enforcement agency are aware of and will comply with this requirement.

NEW! UPDATED Mandatory Wear FAQs

Following two years of declining law enforcement officer line-of-duty deaths, the country realized a dramatic 37 percent increase in officer deaths in 2010.  Fifty-nine of the 160 officers killed in 2010 were shot during violent encounters; a 20 percent increase over 2009 numbers.  

The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to improving officer safety and has undertaken research to review and analyze violent encounters and law enforcement officer deaths and injuries.  

Due to the increase in the number of law enforcement officer deaths, coupled with our renewed efforts to improve officer safety, beginning with FY 2011, in order to receive BVP funds, jurisdictions must certify, during the application process, that all law enforcement agencies benefitting from the BVP Program have a written “mandatory wear” policy in effect.  This policy must be in place for at least all uniformed officers before any FY 2011 funding can be used by the agency.  There are no requirements regarding the nature of the policy other than it being a mandatory wear policy for all uniformed officers while on duty.  

BJA strongly encourages agencies to consult the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Model Policy on Body Armor and to strongly consider all recommendations within that policy.  This policy change was announced in October 2010 by Attorney General Holder after consulting with and receiving input from the law enforcement community.

The IACP has very generously provided both its Body Armor Model Policy and position paper to the BVP program.  In order to obtain a copy of the Model Policy and position paper, jurisdictions must be registered with the BVP program.  To obtain a copy of the Model Policy, contact the BVP Customer Support Center at 1-877-758-3787 or email vests@usdoj.gov.

For additional information regarding this new BVP program requirement, click here.

Justice Department Announces the Opening of Nominations for the Fifth Annual Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing

U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland today announced the Department of Justice is now accepting nominations for the Fifth Annual Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing. These awards represent part of the Department of Justice’s on-going commitment to support the nation’s law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe.

“Effective community policing builds trust between law enforcement officers and those they serve, and that trust helps to improve public safety,” said Attorney General Garland. “These awards honor the exceptional dedication and hard work of law enforcement officers who have gone above and beyond in the performance of their duties, and departments that have excelled in their community policing efforts. Policing is a difficult job, for which extraordinary efforts often go unnoticed, and the Department of Justice is proud to publicly recognize these exemplars of community policing.”

The Attorney General’s Award recognizes individual state, local and tribal sworn, rank- and-file police officers and deputies for exceptional efforts in community policing. The awarded officers, deputies and troopers will have demonstrated active engagement with the community in one of three areas: criminal investigations, field operations or innovations in policing. Within each category, an award will be given to law enforcement agencies serving small, medium, and large jurisdictions. Those agency sizes are defined as:

Small: agencies serving populations of fewer than 50,000
Medium: agencies serving populations of 50,000 to 250,000
Large: agencies serving populations of more than 250,000

By acknowledging and rewarding these efforts, the department strives to promote and sustain its national commitment to community policing and to advance proactive policing practices that are fair and effective. With the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing, the Office of the Attorney General recognizes that the nation’s law enforcement agencies, officers, deputies, and troopers continue to work tirelessly to keep our communities safe places to live and work.

The deadline for nominations is May 28, 2021, at 8 p.m. EDT. More information and the application for nominees can be found at: https://www.justice.gov/ag/policing-award.

Prosecutor: Domestic Violence One of Most Under-Reported Crimes

​Story and Photo by Joe Gamm | Jefferson City News Tribune​
 
Domestic violence reports in Jefferson City dropped significantly (about 40 percent) from 2019-20, according to data from the Missouri Highway Patrol.
 
And reports in Cole County overall remained flat, the data show.
 
That would be encouraging, but what’s more likely is that domestic assaults actually increased — significantly, Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson said.
 
Overall statewide, reports of domestic assault soared by more than 60 percent.
 
The data showed 188 offenses (assault, battery, coercion, harassment, sexual assault or unlawful imprisonment) reported in Jefferson City in 2020, which was down from 314 in 2019. In 2018, there were 272.
 
However, the pandemic has forced spouses, partners, families, relatives and close friends to spend more time together. Sometimes that can be a bad thing.

“What I think we saw — what we did see — was an increase in more first-time offenses, but a decrease in the repeat offenses. The reporting was less,” Thompson said.

Why is uncertain. However, Thompson points out that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes his office contends with.

Despite fewer reports, domestic violence continues to require a volume of prosecutors’ time. Enough so, that Thompson’s office applied for and received a federal Violence Against Women Act grant, which pays for the majority of an assistant prosecutor’s salary. The grant allows the county to dedicate an assistant prosecutor full-time to handling only domestic violence cases.

His office designated Assistant Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Miranda Loesch as the domestic violence prosecutor.

“She handles all of those cases,” Thompson said. “She’s got a significant caseload. I haven’t run her specific numbers for a little bit. But, you’re talking over 300 cases that she’s got.”

Prosecuting the offenders

Victims of domestic violence are encouraged to call 573-634-6400 to file a report. More information is available on the Cole County website, colecounty.org/469/domestic-violence.

Law enforcement agencies do a very good job of investigating reports of abuse, Thompson said.

Anytime law enforcement produces a probable cause statement, his office begins reviewing the case. In situations where the safety of alleged victims is in question, there is a little more urgency.

Law enforcement tries to assure people who do come forward with allegations are as safe as can be, he said.

The office connects alleged victims with resources, including the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service.

“But, obviously, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service can only take so many people at a time,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation.”

In many cases — in which the victims aren’t in immediate danger — the office is able to collect reports and photographs, and review them before making charging decisions, he said.

At that point, the case will go before an associate circuit court judge or go to the Cole County Grand Jury.

Evaluations are done on a case-by-case basis.

“If it’s a dangerous offender, we try to make sure we handle that properly,” Thompson said. “If we think prison is the appropriate answer, we try to make sure that happens. But at the end of the day, what we want to try to do is make sure that victim is safe going forward.”

Unfortunately, he said, victims may oftentimes be uncooperative, if not outright hostile toward prosecutor’s office as it tries to prosecute the case.

“That’s part of the cycle of domestic violence that we want to try to find a way to break,” he added.

In cases where the prosecutor’s office determines the offender should serve probation, rather than prison time, it requires defendants to complete the Missouri Batterer Intervention Program (BIP).

Changing the narrative

The BIP, developed in conjunction with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (MCADSV), is a component of a coordinated community response intended to hold batterers accountable for violence and abuse. It includes community education, building awareness that results in a zero-tolerance response to domestic violence.

“Communities need to develop and maintain community responses that bring together all organizations and systems that have contact with survivors or perpetrators of domestic violence,” according to standards for BIP on the Missouri Department of Public Safety website. “The primary method of intervention shall be group discussions, led by trained co-facilitators, using an established curriculum that includes strategies to hold the offender accountable for the violence in the offender’s intimate relationship.”

Discussions of violent and/or coercive behaviors during group sessions help identify and confront offenders’ controlling behaviors, the program standards state.

Community leaders have developed a Cole County Domestic Violence Response Team — a partnership between the prosecutor’s office, Lincoln University, RACS, the Cole County Sheriff’s Office and the Jefferson City Police Department.

The team’s goal is to create a program that specifically addresses the issue of domestic violence, Thompson said.

Law enforcement leaders would like to see the county initiate a Domestic Violence Court, Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker said.

The county already has four treatment (alternative) courts — DWI Court, Adult Drug Court, Veterans Court and Co-Occurring Treatment Court (for people with dual diagnoses of substance use disorder and mental health disorders). Walker supervises the treatment courts.

There are a number of domestic violence, or domestic abuse, courts that might act as models for such a court in Cole County, Walker said.

Kansas City and St. Louis each has a domestic violence treatment court that the U.S. Department of Justice has named a mentor court. The Kansas City Municipal Domestic Violence Court (KCMDVC) has received a federal grant to help train other courts around the nation how to create what is known as a compliance docket.

Courts establish compliance dockets to supervise high-risk offenders. The dockets are intended to improve victim safety and hold offenders accountable through increased supervision and a holistic approach toward their needs, according to the KCMDVC brochure.

Breaking the cycle of violence

“Our treatment court administrator and I are communicating with St. Louis County,” Walker said. “They are hosting a virtual open house (soon). We’re going to continue to research it and work with our prosecutors to come up with the best way to reduce recidivism and reduce caseloads.”

Walker said the coordinator of the St. Louis court contacted his office Wednesday last week, beginning preparations for the open house.

It’s not a short-term process, he continued.

“We want to take the time to do it right. We want to take the right approach,” he said.

Most of the administrators of the county’s treatment court recently attended a state conference on all treatment courts, Walker said.

They discussed successes and failures.

A recent failure was the Domestic Abuse Court in Greene County.

The Southern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals in September 2019 ordered the county to halt the court permanently because domestic abuse courts hadn’t been established under Missouri law.

There were several mistakes in that program, Walker said.

However, Walker still feels confident a domestic violence court is a reachable goal.

“It’s obviously something that is important, because like some of the other types of cases that come to treatment courts, those who have one offense often have more than one offense,” Walker said. “It’s a perfect type of case to explore, trying to get a specialty court to address it.”

Much like people who are found to be driving while intoxicated, if a person gets a second DWI, they’re likely to get a third, Walker said.

That makes them “high risk, high need,” he said.

“It really is an effort for community wellness,” Walker added.

Creating a domestic violence court will be challenging, Thompson said, because it is a victim-centered violent crime, while other courts deal with crimes that (for the most part) are victimless.

“So, one thing we want to try to make sure we do is to get those people — who are caught as victims — out of that cycle,” he said.

Judges have also mentioned beginning with a domestic violence docket, a smaller step than a treatment court, Thompson said.

That way, the cases take place in the same settings and the courts can look at cases through the course of a morning or afternoon.

Missouri and domestic violence

A little more than a decade ago, Missouri took steps to curb domestic violence. In 2010, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Domestic Violence made numerous legal recommendations to reduce violence and protect victims.

Then-Gov. Jay Nixon signed the majority of the recommendations into law the following year after it passed unanimously through the General Assembly, according to Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s website, ago.mo.gov/criminal-division/public-safety/domestic-violence.

Among other things, the new law made it easier to get protection orders and to renew the orders. It required law enforcement to enter information, including information about child custody, into the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System within 24 hours of changes.

It added domestic violence to offenses (with abuse or stalking) for which the state issues ex parte orders of protection. It allowed courts to investigate whether termination of protective orders are voluntary.

The new law added victims’ schools or places of employment to places where protection orders are in effect. It included some automatic renewals.

It added communication media to the ways that respondents may not communicate with alleged victims.

The law made it a felony for someone who has been found guilty of violating an ex parte order within the past five years to violate another ex parte order.

Chris Nuelle, press secretary for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, said AG involvement in domestic violence cases is limited.

“We do prosecute certain domestic violence cases, but we’re limited in our jurisdiction as we don’t have original criminal jurisdiction,” Nuelle said. “A local prosecutor would have to invite us in, which does happen.”

And, the AG defends every single domestic violence conviction in Missouri through appeals, he pointed out.

Additionally, the AG assists with the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services in its domestic violence training for local prosecutors.

Federal laws intended to decrease domestic violence also are at play in Jefferson City.

An example is that all schools that receive federal funding are required by Title IX to respond to intimate partner violence, sexual violence or stalking.

The federal government requires those institutions to offer training and efforts to assure students are aware of their rights, said Zakiya Brown, Lincoln University Title IX coordinator.

The then-President Donald Trump administration published new regulations for Title IX in August, Brown said.

“We must increase awareness, reduce incidents and offer remedies,” she added.

The focus for Title IX has been getting students to be more aware of their options and to make them more comfortable coming forward to report incidents, Brown said.

She’s trying to change the culture around trust, she added. And letting students know they can speak to her if they think they need help.

“Can (students) trust the institution to remedy, prevent and stop the incidents from happening? With that, what we have done is partner with student organizations to host conversations around healthy relationships,” Brown said. “Helping them identify signs of abuse whether physical, mental or emotional.”

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt created a public safety announcement about a year ago that focuses on the risks created by isolation caused by the coronavirus.

“If you are trapped,” Schmitt says in the PSA, “Know that there are resources available to help.”

And he reminds viewers the national hotline for domestic violence and abuse is 1-800-799-7233 or hotline.org.

“Please remain vigilant in looking out for families friends and neighbors,” he said. “With everyone’s help, we can get help to those who need it most and get through this crisis together.”