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Cops learn to deal with mentally ill people

 | Published on 3/3/2011


BELMONT -- Officer Brian Curley calmed down an elderly woman with dementia Thursday and then worked to determine what shape her mind was in.

"Why are you asking me all these questions?" inquired the woman, who had called police because she believed her husband had stolen her car keys and money.

"I'm worried that you misplaced your keys," said Curley, a San Mateo cop.

It was one of the scenarios that Curley and 35 other police and paramedics faced on the last day of an intense four-day, 40-hour training session designed to teach first responders how to better deal with mentally ill people.

The class started at the Belmont police station Tuesday, the day after a mentally ill 35-year-old man was fatally shot in his backyard by San Mateo police after he fired a pistol at officers. In a similar incident in August, a 20-year-old Burlingame man was shot to death by police after he charged at them with a knife.

"It goes to show you this could happen at any time," said San Mateo County Sheriff's Deputy Jim Coffman, who ran the role play activity. "A situation can escalate from zero to 50 in a second."

But giving officers this type of class, which includes trainers from private advocacy groups and the county's mental health department, is supposed to give them the tools they need to calm a situation when possible.

During the four days, they were trained on everything from recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder, to strategies for establishing trust and communication with mentally ill people, to keeping themselves mentally healthy while on the job.

Curley was positive about the training, saying it was fitting that it came this week.

"We do have a lot of people who need help," he said, adding that the training would be another tool for him to use while on the street.

"This gives us something else to reach to," instead of sending someone to the psychiatric ward, he said.

The session this week was the first since March 2010. The county had been staging the class twice a year for the past five years, until budget cuts hit.

Coffman's position was cut. He was transferred to a job working as a bailiff, and the class was trimmed to just once a year.

What followed was a lobbying effort that succeeded in restoring the program to its original schedule, said Sharon Roth, a board member for the San Mateo County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy and education group.

Roth was at the class Thursday, acting various parts for the role plays, one of which was the woman suffering from dementia.

"We sent lots of letters to the sheriff," she said of the lobbying effort.

Sheriff Greg Munks said the program was reduced because he had to close a budget gap. But, he added, the decision was not one he made lightly.

"It was never canceled," he said. "I'm firmly convinced it is a critical program."

Roth said there is still plenty of work to do. She would like to see judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys take the class.

They are faced daily with people who end up in trouble because they are ill.

"We'd like more judges and lawyers to have more education about people with mental illness so they don't get wrapped up in the criminal justice system," she said.