Training in crisis intervention ‘milestone’ for police officers

WAILUKU – Every day, Maui police officers respond to calls reporting disorderly conduct, trespassing and other incidents involving mentally ill people in crisis.

After the graduation Friday of 20 members of the Maui Police Department’s first Crisis Intervention Team, officers said they’re more equipped to respond to such emergencies.

“It’s like a filter lifted off our eyes,” said Wailuku patrol officer Michael Vaitu’ulala. “There’s a lot we’re starting to notice because we’re educated.

“You ask the right questions, then you realize it is a mental health issue, not an arrest. We approach it differently. They need help.”

Vaitu’ulala was among 15 police officers, three police sergeants, a supervising emergency services dispatcher and a police chaplain who completed a 40-hour training to become certified for the team.

If available, a Crisis Intervention Team member will be called on to respond when it’s determined that an incident involves a mentally ill person in crisis. Team members have been trained to interact with people who are mentally ill or in an emotional crisis and to de-escalate situations to try to prevent violent outcomes, police said.

MPD is the first police department in the state to implement the program, which is based on the Memphis model Crisis Intervention Team program developed at the University of Memphis in 1988, said Dr. Dara Rampersad, Maui County forensic coordinator for the state Adult Mental Health Division.

The program, developed after a Memphis police officer fatally shot a mentally ill person in 1987, has been adopted by other law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Maui Police Chief Gary Yabuta gave credit to Ram-persad for working with police to establish the weeklong training at the Wailuku Police Station and create the team.

“This is a milestone,” Yabuta said.

A state Adult Mental Health Division grant helped pay for the training.

Rampersad said that in other states benefits of the program include fewer injuries to officers because they’re trained in proper procedures in dealing with mentally ill people.

“In addition to that, we get really outstanding outcomes for people who live with mental illness,” he said.

The weeklong training included hearing the experiences of a family member living with mental illness and visiting a lunch wagon in Wailuku where food is prepared by people in treatment for mental illness. Officers saw “vast change” in some people they had earlier encountered on the street while visiting a clubhouse for adults with mental illness, Rampersad said.

He said the Crisis Intervention Team program “is more than training.”

“It is about community partnerships,” he said.

Officers become familiar with resources available to provide services to mentally ill people, he said.

Rampersad estimated that about 1,600 people in the county have been diagnosed with severe mental health issues.

“These are people first, and they live with mental illness,” Rampersad said. “They’re our friends and our family and our neighbors.”

Kihei patrol Sgt. Bill Hankins said that officers have been responding to calls involving people with mental health issues and trying to get them help throughout his 22 years as a police officer.

“We never had a name for it,” he said. “Now, with this training, we have a direct road map to get to the exact place we need to be.

“If they’re in true, true crisis, we don’t want to lock up somebody who’s mentally ill. They need to get back to the treatment they need.”

Hankins said that community resources include case workers, emergency room psychiatric nurses and crisis mobile access. “All of these things are available to us now in lieu of the police just taking them to jail,” he said.

Lahaina patrol officer Stuart Farberow, who encounters someone with mental health issues at least twice a week, said the training was “phenomenal.”

“It’s really needed,” he said.

Fellow Lahaina patrol officer Marvin Tevaga said that the training changed his view of people with mental health issues.

“Rather than incarceration, a lot of these people need services,” Tevaga said. “I have a different perspective and new appreciation for the mental health community.”

Hana school resource officer Nicholas Angell said he learned about more resources so he can try to get people the help they need.

Team members include officers from all police patrol districts, including Molokai and Lanai, said officer Surendar Singh, assistant training

coordinator. Depending on work schedules, she said that a team member may not always be available to respond to an incident, though that could change as more officers are trained.

In addition to responding to calls, team members will keep tabs on people they encounter with mental health issues so they can share information as people move to different parts of the island or county, Singh said.

Rampersad, a licensed psychologist, has worked with MPD to provide annual mental health training to officers for the past three years.

He also has volunteered his time and phone number so officers in the field call him for help whenever they encounter someone undergoing a mental health crisis.

Officers said they’re appreciative of the help from Rampersad, who has taken phone calls from officers in the field at all hours and helped educate them about mental health issues and services.

To officers, Rampersad is known as “Doctor Dara.”

With the formation of the Crisis Intervention Team, Vaitu’ulala said, “now he has 20 more Doctor Daras running around.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at