NEWCASTLE — A scratchy, high-pitched voice grumbles, “You pig. You disgusting pig. You’re pathetic.”
Incoherent whispers follow, interspersed with loud, angry insults. This goes on for nearly 30 minutes.
One man said the voices made him nauseated. Another felt anxious when they briefly stopped leaving an uncomfortable silence. And they were just trying to find celebrity names in a word search as an instructor shouted directions that were difficult to hear over the recorded voices in their headphones.
Imagine what it’s like when an armed police officer is making demands on a busy street corner.
For a few minutes, law enforcement officers from a dozen Oklahoma agencies experience what it’s like to be schizophrenic. The exercise is part of weeklong crisis intervention training, which teaches law enforcement how to identify and respond to mental health emergencies.
The risk of being killed by police is greater for individuals with untreated mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. A national report found that Oklahoma City and Tulsa are among the most deadliest cities in the nation for police killings.
Bennie Edwards became the latest victim. The 60-year-old black man who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was fatally shot by two Oklahoma City officers in December. Neither were trained in crisis intervention.
A 2020 Oklahoma Watch investigation found that law enforcement are responding to more mental health crises than ever. In March, Oklahoma City Police responded to 2,024 mental health calls — the highest total on record. But few officers have received the specialized training that prepares them for those emergencies.
The training was developed in the 1980s at the University of Memphis and is considered a national model for crisis response. The course was brought to this state in 2002 by Oklahoma City police following an increase in the agency’s mental health calls.
Nearly two decades later, about 1,300 officers have been trained statewide. Oklahoma has nearly 13,000 full-time and reserve officers, according to the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training. That means fewer than 10% of officers are certified in crisis intervention.
About 15 to 20 training sessions are offered annually to accommodate departments across the state. But it can be a drain on agency resources since the training requires participating officers to take a week off. Some agencies offer a bump in pay to trained officers. Oklahoma City police certified in crisis intervention receive an additional $1,300 per year.
On April 5, one of the state’s largest classes to date gathered in the Newcastle storm shelter, which also serves as a meeting space. Spread out at a dozen long plastic tables were officers from Midwest City, Newcastle, Norman and Blanchard; sheriff’s deputies from Cleveland, Blaine and McClain Counties; jailers, record clerks, a dispatcher and Norman’s police chief.
There were 32 students in total. About half volunteered. They’ve heard from other officers that the training is helpful and see the need to adapt as mental health calls increase. The rest were ordered to attend.
One Midwest City sergeant who was required to be there said mental health calls are “not what I signed up for.” But officers don’t have a choice when it comes to answering these calls. Agencies prioritize sending trained officers to mental health calls but one is not always available.
Police respond to mental health calls every day. A man talking to himself on the sidewalk. A woman singing and dancing in a busy parking lot. An 11-year-old who repeatedly cuts herself on the playground.
State law requires law enforcement to transport individuals with mental illness to a hospital for treatment if they appear to be a danger to themselves or others. But the level of risk isn’t always clear.
The training is a mix of art and science, said Lt. Cary Bryant, a 24-year veteran of Norman Police Department and crisis intervention instructor. The goal is to balance empathy, listening skills and tone with their safety training and without impeding on individual rights. That requires officers to slow down, Bryant said.
The “hearing voices” simulation helps officers understand why individuals with schizophrenia might be slow to respond to direction or pause before answering a question, reactions that can make officers suspicious.
After explaining the benefits of mental health training, which can reduce officer injuries and use of force, Tania Woods, the law enforcement liaison for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, passed out MP3 players and headphones and explained the importance of the exercise.
Other sessions covered state law, symptoms and treatment of common psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, suicide, children’s mental health and self care for police.
After watching videos of a man who was beating his car with a bat and a woman who was loitering on the side of a busy highway, officers practiced writing affidavits. Detailed accounts of what the individual is saying, their tone of voice and how they’re acting with officers increases their likelihood of being admitted to a mental health facility.
Personal stories help officers view the calls through different perspectives.
Bianca Thompson, 35, rubbed her hands as she told officers what it’s like to live with mental illness. The room was silent as Thompson explained her struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. She worked constantly to avoid feeling alone, but the sadness eventually caught up to her, causing her to lose her job, her income and her health insurance. Her first run-in with police came after someone called 911 because Thompson was walking down the middle of a street. Officers put her in the back of a police car and transported her to a hospital, she said.
“The handcuffs were the worst part,” Thompson said.
From the middle of the room an officer responded, “you know why we have to do that, right?”
It’s department policy to handcuff someone before they’re placed into the back of a patrol car, the officer explained. “We don’t know what you might do,” he told her.
Thompson nodded and said she understood but that it made her feel like a criminal.
Officers arrived to class in uniform for the final two days when they were asked to apply the week’s lessons to role-playing drills. Each was given a scenario based on a real call that instructors had responded to. Instructors and other officers trained in crisis intervention play the role of someone who has mental illness. The officers in training have to assess the situation and determine whether to take them into custody.
No photo or video of the scenarios was permitted. Much like an active shooter drill, these mental health drills are meant to prepare officers for the reality of these calls. But instructors worry that they could be seen as insensitive, which is not the intent, Bryant said. (Reporter Whitney Bryen was permitted to photograph the scenarios.)
Woods wore a Christmas hat and waved coupons in the air while shouting joyfully at Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office deputy Kasey Collie as the other officers studied his response. Collie smiled while asking how long it’s been since Woods ate or slept. Did she take any medications? Did she know where she was?
She was delusional and needed help. Collie knelt and matched her positive tone, asking if she would allow him to take her to someone that could help. He calmly explained that he would have to put handcuffs on her but that she wasn’t in trouble. Eventually, Woods agreed and the class applauded.
Other officers broke character to seek help from instructors. A detention officer crouched on the floor of a pretend jail cell where an instructor played a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. One officer determined the woman he was sent to check on was not a danger and left without detaining her.
Norman dispatcher Andrew Stober sat back to back with Woods as she played a grieving woman on the verge of suicide. In a calming voice, Stober asked the woman why she was upset, sent an officer to wait outside her home and eventually convinced her to go with the officer to talk to someone who could help.
“This is a very common scenario,” Stober said after the drill.
Newcastle Sgt. Shelly Spratt clutched her hands and nodded as Oklahoma City detective Jennifer Harbuck frantically pointed to drones she saw flying overhead. Harbuck refused to come out of a dog house, depicted by a white blanket, where she had been hiding for days.
Spratt, who has been on the force for 11 years, said her instinct was to give commands. Get out of the dog house. Come out now.
This time, she resisted the urge and slowed her response.
Spratt asked questions, listened and offered to help.
“I think it’s a more sensitive approach,” Spratt said. “And I still got her to come out, but this way she did it on her own, which is less stressful for everyone.”
The controlled training environment has obvious limitations. It doesn’t prepare officers for weather, darkness or onlookers, like the crowd that gathered when Edwards was killed. Few involved weapons. Officers worked alone during training in order to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols, which is not typical in the field. And the heightened anxiety of a life or death situation is impossible to mimic.
Spratt, 34, was one of three Newcastle officers who attended the training. She worked as a dispatcher in college and was a psychology major before switching to criminal justice. Her father recently retired after 30 years as a Grady County Sheriff’s Office deputy and her brother is a deputy in McClain County.
Spratt grew up in Newcastle and said she requested the training as a way to educate and take better care of her community. Most of her calls send her to the casinos for drug and alcohol abuse. But Spratt said the training challenged her perceptions.
“I used to think these are the bad guys and we’re here to stop them,” Spratt said. “But, now, I realize that it might be a result of a mental health condition or self-medicating, and I’ll have that conversation with them before I make an arrest instead of waiting until they’re in the back of my car and on their way to jail. Maybe I’ll take them somewhere else next time.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state.