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On the job with officer trained to handle crisis calls

December 29, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The police vehicle picks up speed along Paris Avenue in Gentilly, its blue flashing lights visible against the darkening November sky. New Orleans Police Department officer Beth Reniff flips on her siren and eases off the gas at every intersection, ever-mindful of the one inattentive driver who could slam into her cruiser.

Her destination is a one-story brick home in the Lakeshore neighborhood, where she’s been told a 57-year-old woman might have tried to kill herself. The dispatcher gives her the few details she has: A 16-year-old boy came home and found his mom disoriented and a bottle of pills on the console table.

It’s about 6 p.m. when Reniff parks outside the home in NOPD’s Third District. The 39-year-old Oregon native joined the department in 2015, and is among the first group of officers to undergo specialized Crisis Intervention Team training designed to prepare them for mental health crisis calls like this one. NOPD is among a minority of law enforcement agencies in Louisiana that use the training, which advocates say helps reduce safety risks for both officers and people who call in need.

The woman’s older son, 27, answers the door. He got there just before Reniff did. Once inside, Reniff leads the woman to the bedroom just off the front room, while her sons wait in the kitchen. Dressed in a long red shirt and gray sweatpants, the woman climbs in bed and pulls the sheets up near her chin. Reniff stands at her side. They talk for several minutes. Reniff speaks softly and reaches up to turn down the volume on her police radio. The woman tells Reniff she lost a big job recently and has been having issues with her younger son smoking marijuana. She says she feels like a failure as a mom.

Three other officers wait by the front door. Reniff eventually emerges and asks one of them to keep an eye on the woman while she talks to the sons.

“She’s having a rough year,” Reniff tells the sons. The teenage son tells Reniff he didn’t actually see his mom take any pills, but she has made comments about wanting to hurt herself in the past.

An ambulance stops out front. By now, a few neighbors are starting to ask questions. Two paramedics enter. The older one remembers this woman. He treated her about 10 years ago, he says, when she tried to jump from the Crescent City Connection and struck a platform just below the bridge.

The other paramedic examines the bottle of Xanax still on the table by the door. He doesn’t think she took any — only five of the 30 pills are gone, and the prescription was filled two months ago. The woman is clearly groggy though, but she tells them she had a few glasses of wine earlier.

“Will you go with them to the hospital for me?” Reniff softly asks. “Just to be safe? I think you should.”

The paramedics try to coax the woman as well, but she won’t go. “I’m fine,” she tells them. “I just want to stay home.”

Police have the power to take someone against their will to the hospital, but only if there’s a clear threat the person will harm themselves or others. This is a gray area, Reniff later says. The woman might not be well, but she doesn’t appear to be in crisis and she hasn’t given Reniff or the paramedics any indication she wants to harm herself.

Reniff tells the woman’s older son he could go to the coroner to get an order of protective custody, which gives law enforcement the authority to take the person to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

The Orleans coroner issued 896 of those orders last year. If the sons decide to get one for their mother tonight, Reniff tells them she’ll try to be the one to come back and escort their mother to the hospital.

Reniff leaves and heads to a nearby church parking lot, where, under the glow of her cruiser’s dome light, she fills out a report on what just happened.

It’s 7:30 p.m. Reniff’s night shift is halfway through.

It took being the victim of a crime for Reniff to become a police officer. She was familiar with both sides of the criminal justice system: Her uncle had been sheriff of a county in northern California and her brother had been in and out of jail since 17.

She moved to New Orleans for graduate school, earning her master’s degree in public administration from the University of New Orleans, and started work at a now-defunct nonprofit dedicated to helping children.

But being a police officer had always been in the back of her mind. Then, early one morning, she was attacked while walking her dog in the city’s 7th Ward. Later that same day, she submitted her application to the NOPD.

She enrolled in the department’s CIT program shortly after she finished field training.

“It’s another tool in the tool belt,” she says of the training. “It’s easy to forget you’re talking to someone who’s having a bad day — probably the worst day of their lives. A little empathy goes a long way.”

CIT training started in Memphis in response to the 1987 fatal officer-involved shooting of a 27-year-old man with a mental illness. It has spread to more than 2,700 communities nationwide. New Orleans follows the Memphis model: 40 hours of training followed by an annual eight-hour refresher course. Officers learn to rapidly assess a mental health crisis call, how to recognize the signs of different mental illnesses, how to de-escalate a situation. CIT officers are typically armed with a resource guide to connect people with services.

But CIT has yet to be adopted by most police agencies in Louisiana. Without that additional training, advocates say, those agencies are putting officers and the community in danger.

Reniff says she sees the value of the three years of CIT training she’s received. She’s learned how to spot the triggers a person with a mental illness might have, and what works to calm them.

Most important, she says, is the time she’s allowed for each call. NOPD will field more than 5,000 calls this year related to someone with a mental illness, an average of 15 a day. There’s a pressure on officers to quickly wrap up whatever call they’re on so they can move on to the next one. But CIT training encourages officers to be patient.

“For better or worse, police officers are the first step in the process,” she says. “Just having police in your house is going to be traumatic, so anything we can do to figure out how to build rapport and make them feel safe.”

De-escalation tactics don’t always work, though. Reniff will see that later in the night.

It’s 8:45 p.m. and Reniff is stopped in front of a blue warehouse on the edge of the Third District, brought there by the report of a 19-year-old woman threatening to cut herself with scissors. She’s outside when Reniff gets there, along with the man who called police and two people who are human trafficking outreach workers from Covenant House.

Reniff approaches and tries to talk to the woman. It’s dark and Reniff keeps her flashlight shining on the woman’s hands, which are by her side, and not on her face as many officers do in such circumstances. More officers arrive and, in a flash, the woman yells and bolts around the side of the warehouse. Reniff and the other officers give chase. They catch her halfway down the driveway and hold her down while trying to handcuff her.

“Relax!” Reniff says. “You’re not in trouble.”

The woman screams and flails her legs with such force she nearly flips up and over the two officers leading her by the arms to the back of a squad car.

Reniff and the other officers find no evidence the woman had scissors or wanted to cut herself. They question the man who called police and learn he had a romantic relationship with the woman. It’s unclear why he told police she wanted to hurt herself, but the Covenant House staff later say the man was controlling and wouldn’t let the woman leave prior to police arriving.

The officers transfer the woman from the back of the police car to a waiting ambulance. Reniff follows it to University Medical Center’s emergency room.

The woman’s arms are restrained to the stretcher as paramedics wheel her into the ER. They park her stretcher just inside the front door. Reniff pulls up a chair next to the stretcher and tries again to talk to the woman.

“You’re not in trouble,” she tries to reassure her. “I just want to know what happened.”

Reniff calls the department’s sex crimes division from UMC while the woman is taken to a room. She suspects they might want to examine the relationship between this woman and the man who called police on her. The woman had been committed in September after threatening suicide, Reniff later learns. The address of that incident is not far from the blue warehouse where police found her this night.

Reniff leaves the ER shortly after 10 p.m. As she heads to her cruiser, she worries the woman will be out of the hospital and back with that man, unless the workers at Covenant House can convince her to go there instead.

Staff at Covenant House say the woman did go back there after she got out of the hospital around 12:30 the next morning. She stayed at the shelter about two hours and then left for the French Quarter after the man she was with came to bring her wallet and phone.

Some time that next day, the woman got in an accident while driving that same man’s car, according to staff at Covenant House. She was taken to UMC and, later, Children’s Hospital after it was discovered she’s only 16.

She’s now back with her mom in New Orleans.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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