Police train to deal with mental illness

Posted at 12:31 AM, Jan 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-14 02:31:00-05

When a man pulled a knife outside a Fort Collins coffee shop on Tuesday, police were ready to use a pepper gun, if necessary.  Instead, they were able to talk the suspect into dropping his knife.

“It’s a challenge for officers,” said Kate Kimble, public relations manager for Fort Collins Police Services. “We deal with mentally ill citizens on a regular basis.”

Kimble told Denver7 that the department’s psychologist teaches officers how to deal with citizens who are coping with substance abuse issues and mental health issues.

“We do have mentally ill citizens who may become violent,” she said. “It’s important to have some tactics in mind to deal with them, and ideally resolve the situation peacefully.”

That training paid off when a man brandished a knife outside the Alley Cat Coffee House.

“At first he was just pacing back and forth, talking to himself,” said Sara Green, an employee at the nearby Dam Good Tacos, “then he brought the knife out and it became more serious.”

Green said that’s when someone in the business upstairs called and told her to lock the doors, so she did.

“The cops came.  I saw they had really big guns, which is also scary to see," she said, "but it wasn’t loud.”

Kimble said the officers try to build relationships with the people they’re policing.

“We’ve got people we deal with frequently,” she said. “They know the officers, so there is no sense of surprise.”

Kimble told Denver7 that officers undergo a lot of training to de-escalate situations just using verbal commands.  She said body language is also important.

“The individuals may be comfortable with the officers on a personal level but might be having an episode or an incident,” she said. “The officers get to know some of the behaviors that specific people exhibit, the systems they’re in and what might be a triggering factor.”

Kimble said if the suspect has committed a crime, the officers will explain that a law has been broken and they have to make an arrest.

“But they do it in a way that respects that person’s dignity,” she said, “and they reason with them to the extent that they can be reasoned with.”

She also said that the department’s staff psychologist is part of an inter-agency group consisting of law enforcement, hospitals, support centers and first responders who work together to align protocols and match resources to the needs of the individual.

When asked how many mentally ill people Ft. Collins police deal with on a monthly or annual basis, Kimble said those numbers are still being compiled.

She said Dispatch determines the priorities and that it’s more contingent on the situation, than the individual.

“So you may have someone that you’ve dealt with a hundred times peacefully, but they’re bringing a gun to the next situation, so that’s going to change the response to it.”

She said, "Our goal is to help people get the resources they need... not just arrest people."

Green said the incident with the knife-wielding suspect ended without anyone getting hurt.

“It could have ended badly,” she said, “but they did it peacefully.”

The suspect was arrested and is being held for investigation of Possession of a Weapon by a Previous Offender and Misdemeanor Menacing.

He’s being held on $1,750 bond.