Local officers receive training on how to handle 'special population'

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Identify and react.

Police officers must do those two attributes well to survive each day on the streets and come home safely to their families each night.

Last month, officers from local Valencia County law enforcement agencies received training on how to handle encounters with those who have mental impairments.

The small group of officers from the Belen and Bosque Farms police departments attended the six-hour class.

All law enforcement officers in the state get training with the passage of House Bill 93, an initiative that requires law enforcement officers to complete a course that includes crisis intervention training.

Officers need to use de-escalation tactics rather than excessive force to gain control over a situation involving someone who is mentally ill.

"You never know who is going to have a mental illness," said Belen Police Lt. Robert Miller.

Miller, a certified instructor, said police officers need to be patient and calm when approaching someone who is "a special population" of a mental impairment.

In 2010, a Belen police officer shot and killed a man, who was said to suffer from a mental disorder, after a domestic dispute with his brother near Fourth Street and Ross Avenue. Sgt. Gerald Espinosa shot the man in the chest after the officer said he refused to put down a rifle.

A grand jury found that it was a justifiable shooting, but the man's family has filed a civil lawsuit against the officer.

Miller said officers who are less physical, less authoritative and less confrontational can have more control over a situation with someone who is mentally ill.

"(If you have a) less confrontational approach, you have more authority and more control over a person in a diminished capacity in an encounter," Miller said. "I have always said that our mouths get us into trouble.

"… We get ourselves into trouble by saying stuff that shouldn't be said when it's unnecessary to say it, especially (when we are) saying it to someone in a special population."

People with different impairments react differently to certain situations.

For example, someone with autism often does not look people in the eye and they don't like when they are touched by other individuals, the lieutenant said.

Miller said dealing with different situations in the field is an art, not a science. He said some people who are psychotic might not properly hear commands.

He said officers must approach each situation carefully. In some cases, he said, officers can conceal their "combat readiness" to make that person or persons feel more comfortable.

Often times, officers will get voluntary compliance from people who are initially standoffish. He said it's essential to gain a rapport and gather enough information to find out what the individual is requesting.

"Maintain calmness and then you can forecast what is next," Miller said.

Mike Esquibel, a Belen police officer, said he recently dealt with a man with schizophrenia at a call on N.M. 47 near the Allsup's in Rio Communities. He said the man got behind a water truck and claimed "someone was after him."

The officer said he talked to the man for about an hour before he agreed to get into an ambulance to be evaluated.

"He was legitimately scared," Esquibel said.

Ariel Iturrarde, of the Bosque Farms Police Department, said the training was a good refresher on how officers should handle certain situations. He has been with the department for about a year.

"It helps us understand what subjects are thinking," he said.


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.