By Joe Beck
The agitated woman perched on a ledge in the upper tier of the jail was ready to jump into space and maybe to her death.
"Oh my God, somebody help me," she shouted. "I'm scared of heights."
One of the deputies standing behind her tried to calm her down.
"I can help you if you want to turn around," he said softly. "I can help you."
The drama ended with the woman being eased back inside by deputies Sharon Bennett of Warren County and Phillip Carter of Page County.
The tension broke, and the would-be jumper and her rescuers returned to the real world, secure in the knowledge she was never in danger. It was all a role-playing exercise conducted for and by deputies from Warren and Page counties at the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Middletown.
Staff members from Northwestern Community Services were there to help frame the exercise by playing the part of mentally ill people in various states of distress.
The mental health workers, drawing on years of observing countless patients, performed with the intensity of Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson in some of their memorably manic roles.
"I just couldn't keep it going. It was too hard to keep it going," Ramona G. Dobbs, one of the training coordinators, said after she had spent about 10 minutes standing on top of a table in which she played the part of a distraught teenager. At one point, she chucked an empty beer can near the feet of one of the officers trying to calm her down.
The purpose of the role-playing was to give law enforcement officers a chance to build the skills needed to bring emotionally fraught encounters with the mentally ill to peaceful resolutions.
Interactions with mentally ill people are a common part of law enforcement, especially in the jails, said Sgt. Rosie Carroll, a staff member at the academy and also a jailer with the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester.
"Unfortunately, mental health cases are becoming more prevalent in the jails," Carroll said. "There's no place to put them."
Dennis Vaughn, a member of the Northwestern Community Services Crisis Response team, said he has had a few years to polish his role of a man suffering from paranoid delusions in which he imagines himself working to foil a plot by the Burger King monarch to assassinate President Obama.
Vaughn said the idea came to him one night while he was reading something about John Kennedy's assassination. From there, Vaughn worked up the idea for a script in which a mentally ill man describes to police how the initials of Obama's first name, BK, are the same as those of the fast food franchise. The plot in the man's mind thickens as he realizes that the first lady has been crusading for healthy eating habits, thus giving Burger King's cartoonish mascot a motive for wanting to harm the president.
It may seem comical to most people, but Vaughn said the patients he works with are completely earnest about their fantasies and deserve some empathy from the rest of society.
"If you truly have those beliefs, trying to live in this world would be really frustrating," Vaughn said in an interview.
Deputy Aaron Cubbage of Page County said he found the role-playing and the four days of classes and lectures that preceded it to be a valuable experience.
"It's been a really great class," Cubbage said. "I'm learning more than I expected."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com