Police Chief Proposes Mental Disorder Training for Officers

Even before the recent stabbings at a high school near Pittsburgh, Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger saw the need for law enforcement officers to be trained to recognize a person with a mental disorder and what to do in such a situation.

“I used to work in Virginia,” Schwertfeger explained, “and in that area there were a lot of incidents with folks with mental illness, many of them involved shootings. They implemented a Crisis Intervention Training program for law enforcement officers in that area. I’m working on getting something like that here. I’d also like to take it to the next level and include being able to recognize different forms of autism, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) into the program.”

“Right now we’re in the very early stages,” he said. “The program has to be community specific, based on the resources we have here locally.”

He has already met with Kathy Shapell, director of the Augusta Levy Learning Center in Wheeling, and Joyce Scott, president of local National Alliance for Mental Illness chapter, and her group, regarding his plans to start such a program. He said he also would like to involve local universities and others involved with mental illness, possibly even those with a mental disorder, to get their input.

“I don’t want to limit this to the Wheeling police,” Schwertfeger said. “I would like to open this training up to all law enforcement officers from the area. The program will train officers in how to recognize mental disorders. We encounter them all the time. It can help an officer not only to recognize what we’re dealing with but how to diffuse it and keep it from becoming a violent situation. It also teaches officers how to use resources available to them to assure people we’re working with them to get them the help they need.”

He continued, “The stakeholders will be the mental health professionals. I’m still learning how this works. I’m really excited about it. It’s going to take a lot of work, and I’m not sure how long it’s going to take. It could take as long as a year, but we’re going to make it work. I know officers who were skeptical going in but say it was the best training they ever had and wished they had had it sooner. It’s very powerful. We are still in the early stages and we are looking for input and help.”

Shapell has met twice with Schwertfeger and pointed out that studies have shown police are seven times more likely to be involved with people with autism than others.

“This type of training would be very valuable to law enforcement,” she said. “People with autism may have trouble following verbal commands, reading body language, or maybe even certain language. An officer could think they are being non-compliant. They need to be able to recognize it to avoid a tragedy. We are fortunate to have a police chief and department looking to get this type of training.”

Scott said she has attended three national conventions during which police training programs such as this have been discussed.

“It makes such a difference to the families,” she said. “It makes a difference to the public, too, to know the police know how to handle these situations. NAMI is very ready to back him on this. When a person is having a mental episode, they are not in the reality of what is going on, in many cases. For the police to be able to recognize it is key. The less trauma there is for them the better and safer.”