Training to handle a crisis

Woodstock Police Chief Eric Reiley, left, and Stephens City police officer Scott Baber, center, role play with Carol Schott, right, jail service specialist with Northwestern Community Services, during a crisis intervention training class held Friday at the Shenandoah County Government Center in Woodstock on Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — Law enforcement and other first responders don’t always know what a situation will bring when they arrive there. But as local officers and health care professionals learned this week, choosing the right words and actions can de-escalate a situation before it spirals out of control.

Crisis intervention training this week taught members of area police departments, sheriff’s offices, fire and rescue departments and others how to react when faced with an unpredictable person, like those suffering from mental illness.

As the week progressed during the 40 hours of training, scenarios became more difficult to handle, said Tiffani Ashland, coordinator of the Crisis Intervention Team at Northwestern Community Services.

“All these are based on real cases,” she said.

People she and her colleagues encounter include people who can be suicidal and typically are agitated over a situation that might not be immediately apparent to first responders. Whatever the situation, she said, the primary focus is to keep it from escalating and resulting in someone being harmed.

Crisis intervention trainer Sgt. Kevin Foltz of the Front Royal Police Department evaluates a performance during role playing Friday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

Ideally, she said, a situation results in a patient being treated without requiring physical action from those trained in intervention.

Tactics she and other trainers told students on Friday included making eye contact with the individual, practicing relaxed hand gestures and meet the person on his or her level.

Ask questions, repeat information to show you’re listening, use “I” statements to keep from sounding accusatory and keep from making any promises, she told them.

Entering a scenario of a disorderly client at a medical clinic, Heath Painter of the Woodstock Police Department tried identifying with her.

“You’re obviously upset about this,” he told the woman, portrayed by Carol Schott, jail service specialist and certified pre-screener for Northwestern Community Services.

Woodstock Police Chief Eric Reiley tried a similar tactic in a separate try at the same scenario, telling the woman, “So you’re worried about going to the hospital and losing your stuff.”

Worried about what might be the bag she was holding, Scott Baber of the Stephens City Police Department got her to agree he could hold her bag, “as long as you don’t look in it.”

It’s a tough scenario, Michael Roane of the Virginia CIT Coalition told Painter and Aaron Pattie, of the Woodstock Police. Schott’s character wasn’t out of control, but she also never really reduced her state of distress and never agreed to treatment suggested by the officers.

“She made your decision really easy for you when she walked out,” he told them.

But Ashland praised them, saying they were both very calming in their approach.

In the next scenario, Northwestern’s Donna Trillio presented a customer causing a disturbance in a convenience store. Less angry, she offered her own challenges by refusing to tell officers her real name and admitting she has suicidal thoughts.

But little by little, Tim Wakeman of the Shenandoah Sheriff’s Office built a rapport with her, calling her by her preferred name of Elly May even after learning her real name and allowing her to call him Jethro.

Praised afterward for kneeling down next to her so he could approach her at her level, Wakeman admitted that usually those he encounters would rather ride to the hospital in an ambulance instead of the back of his police cruiser, but not Elly May.

When she refused the ambulance, he changed tactics and secured her acceptance of help if he would drive her there himself.

The first of three planned trainings this year, the local training group has made an impression on Roane, who called them some of the best he’s seen.

“By far, they have a dedicated core of instructors that are just about the best in the state,” he said. “They’re so passionate about CIT and improving communication.”

Not yet a requirement for all law enforcement, crisis intervention training is headed in that direction, Ashland said, because of the benefit it offers both suspects better off treated for their mental illnesses than taken forcefully to jail, and for first responders who are safer de-escalating a situation than having to use force.

“It’s above and beyond the full-time job,” Ashland said.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or