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Defusing a crisis with talk instead of force

Officers from 10 agencies in weeklong class

DIXON – Get the call. Drive to the scene. Help someone. Or, try to, at least, because you’re a cop, and that’s what you do.

This call is to a hotel room, where there is a woman inside.

“She was supposed to check out, but she didn’t,” the manager says.

Knock on the door. Talk to her: the one who’s silently sobbing, her face in her hands.

She has backed herself into a corner, and she is distraught. The room is thick with the smell of sweat, beer, and stale air, so you do what you’ve been trained to do. Because you’re a cop and, thanks to a weeklong class on crisis intervention, this time you know what to do.

This isn’t a real crisis for Dixon police Officer Aaron Simonton and Sgt. Mike Wolfley. Rather, it is a role-playing lesson at the end of the fourth day of training this week at Comfort Inn and Suites in Dixon.

The woman, Jocelyn, is an actress who for the past year has been helping with training like this throughout the state. Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller is in the room, too; as is Aaron’s father, sheriff-elect and fellow Dixon officer John Simonton.

Another actor plays the hotel manager. Tony Rigano also is there watching, silently critiquing every move by Simonton and Wolfley for later review.

The men are two of 16 officers from 10 northern Illinois law enforcement agencies who are taking the class, hosted by the mobile training unit in partnership with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.

About 8 and a half minutes into the scenario, the tension in the room finally eases. Wolfley, kneeling and at eye level with the woman, has gotten through to her.

“Jocelyn,” he says. “Jocelyn.”

He repeats her name until she looks up at him.

She’s upset because her parents don’t appreciate her, she says. They hate her. They think she’s worthless. She feels worthless.

Wolfley tells her that’s not true. She isn’t worthless.

The woman is a secretary, she says, her older sibling is graduating from law school. She asks Wolfley, What’s a secretary compared to an attorney?

He suggests that just maybe her parents don’t understand all the good she does.

She looks up.

“I try to help people in my own way,” she says. “I try to be nice to everybody I meet. I held a charity thing at my work.”

“What charity?” Aaron asks.

Neither has yet addressed the large can of beer in the brown bag behind her, or the empty prescription bottle on the dresser.

But wait, they will.

The class is supposed to go from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but sometimes it goes a little bit longer, says John Williams, training coordinator.

For 5 days, the officers show up and sit through classes about how to handle encounters with people suffering from mental illnesses, with topics including child and adolescent disorders, veterans, geriatric issues, intellectual disabilities, medical conditions, and psychotropics.

On the final 2 days of class, officers begin role-playing, entering a hotel room with no idea what awaits them.

“I think a lot of time traditional police methods are, you know, she’s in the room, and she’s gotta go, so it would just be come in and say, ‘Hey, you can’t be here anymore. You’re not supposed to be here,’” Rigano says after Wolfley and Simonton successfully defuse the situation.

“So part of what [critical incident training] does is help bridge that gap between traditional police methods and what society expects of the police now. You know, the hotel staff would be happy if we just got her out of here, but that’s not going to help her.”

The Dixon Police Department had the largest number of attendees – five – among the 10 agencies participating in the training. All others sent one or two people.

“I think it’s invaluable to know how to deal with people going through a crisis and, rather than use force, to try to get people to go to the hospital, to try to get them to willingly comply and go on their own,” Sacco-Miller says. “We’re going to be dealing with people that are in crisis, and rather than have a shooting occur or some other tragedy, if there’s at least one trained officer on each shift that knows how to deal with it, we can possibly avoid a tragedy.”

The class, Sacco-Miller says, teaches officers to recognize the signs of mental illness, so that if they approach someone who is behaving erratically or saying things that don’t make sense, they can defuse the situation just by talking with the person rather than responding with force.

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