Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Something Old, Something New

By Annette Dashofy

This week’s Citizens’ Police Academy was a two-fer. A little bit of something new and a little bit of something old was presented during our field trip to the training center.

Relatively new to Pittsburgh is the Crisis Intervention Team. Unlike SWAT, this is not a “response” team. Rather it’s a “collaborative” team in which the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police works with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Heath and state and county correctional institutions. Police training for this program began June 2007.

So much information was thrown at us in such a short span of time, my notes leave much to be desired. Hopefully our resident mental health specialist, Tory, can jump in with some additional comments.

The training gives officers an insight into mental illness so they can possibly de-escalate a mental health crisis when they are faced with those situations.

The police based Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is the front door of a diversionary process used to divert people BEFORE they’ve done something requiring arrest. The team might be called to the scene if a report comes in of someone out on the street yelling at a stop sign or the neighbor has lined their fence with tin foil.

But it goes further, dealing with the mentally ill who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes. It’s a volunteer program allowing a person to be released on bond to Allegheny County Mental Health rather than being held in jail

It also can help when a mentally ill prisoner is released by bringing them into half-way houses and closely monitoring them during the transition back into the community.

Pittsburgh has a Central Recovery Center that opened in August 2007. It has a no eject/no reject policy and is an alternative to hospital or jail. It provides screening, assessment, and crisis prevention on a voluntary basis (a person cannot be involuntarily committed here). It also offers access to longer-term respite beds when needed and offers referrals to Behavioral Health Forensics Services as well as providing communication with family and significant others.

To date, 55 Pittsburgh officers have been trained and 15 other officers from outside the city. The goal is to eventually have enough officers with crisis intervention training so that someone will always be on duty and available to respond.

The second portion of this week’s class brought us in contact with a slightly older program. Pittsburgh has had a K-9 unit since November of 1958, making it the second oldest continuously running K-9 program in the United States (the oldest, by a mere matter of months, is Baltimore County, Maryland). Unlike many police dog programs across the country, Pittsburgh Police train their own dogs and provide in service training.

We were fortunate to be able to watch several dogs put through their paces including an obstacle course and going after a “suspect” dressed in a bulky bite suit. Think the Michelin Man with bite marks.

A police canine’s greatest asset to the department is its nose. They can provide a search for drugs or explosives (depending on how the dog is trained) faster than a human could and with less intrusion. A dog doesn’t have to open a bag to tell what’s in it.

A dog sniffing (or “snearching” as Sgt. Chris Micknowski called a sniff and search) drugs is trained to respond differently than a dog searching for explosives. A drug sniffing dog will act more aggressively when it has located an illegal substance, biting and scratching at the area where it’s hidden. With an explosive, understandably, you don’t want such an aggressive reaction. Those dogs are trained to respond more passively, such as sitting and looking at the area.

Something else I found interesting is that when a dog is to go into a building to locate a suspect who may be hiding there, there is no rush to get started. Time is on the officers’ side, because the longer a suspect remains in there, the stronger his odor becomes and the easier it is for the dog to find. Sgt. Micknowski used the example of peeling an onion and letting it sit. At first, only those closest to it would be able to smell it. But after a half hour, even those in the back of the room would be aware of that onion.

And it was stressed that the police need to call in a dog first, NOT AFTER they’ve already searched the building, adding their own odors and disturbing the suspect’s odor.

Also, unlike all other departments, in Pittsburgh, our dogs are trained to locate and bark at a suspect as long as he doesn’t attempt to flee or act aggressively. And when a dog goes after someone, it is not considered “attacking.” It’s one bite and hold. The dogs are trained to go for the back of the arms, shoulders, and the upper back of the suspect, the closer to the center of the upper back, the better. That way, the suspect is less likely to be able to harm the dog. We were able to witness several examples of this training. Believe me, if you ever encounter an unleashed police canine, DO NOT MOVE.

Police canines are considered a non-deadly type of force and therefore is safer for the suspect. If a human police officer were to go into a situation, he may need to pull his gun and use deadly force. A dog will cause pain, but won’t kill. How many times have you heard of people dying after being “tased”? How many times have you heard of people being killed by police canines?

The dogs also provide safety for their handlers. Often their mere presence is enough to cause a suspect to surrender. That’s also one of the reasons that German Sheppard’s are used so extensively. They have “the look.”

And they don’t need a piece of clothing to locate someone. They search by ground disturbance odors (at least, Pittsburgh’s dogs do).

Next week: Playing hooky.


Anonymous said...

Annette: Good job on the CIT/CRC summary! Since the CIT training is held in the suite I work in, and the CRC is in the building behind the one I work in, and a good friend of mine works there, I'm pretty familiar with the two programs.

Mostly, I want to emphasize the difference between what I see as the "real mental health cases" and the "real criminals, posing as mental health cases." An example of a real mental health case is a former patient of mine who thought the FBI was after him so he hopped on a greyhound bus, took it across the country. When he got to Idaho, he thought the FBI was on the bus, so he jumped out and stole the nearest car. Note the problem here is that he's delusional, thinks he's being chased by the FBI when he isn't.

Then there's the real criminals who sometimes play like they're mentally ill so that they can manipulate the system, either to get drugs like Xanax (which they may use or sell) or to get out of jail. The problem here is their basic personality, not their mental illness.

Making this distinction in a real case can be surprisingly difficult. And, the ways you want to treat the two people are almost opposite. So sad if you are too "tough" with the poor guy who's having hallucinations and end up scaring him away from treatment. But a pain if you are too "soft" on the consumer who's just trying to manipulate you and ends up twisting you around their little finger.

No easy answers. But then, that's why I work in mental health! Easy answers are far too boring.

Annette said...

Tory, I new I could rely on you to deepen our understanding of this very challenging subject. Thanks for the additional input.

Annette said...

I meant "knew" of course. Must. Get. Coffee...

Martha Reed said...

This academy program sounds fascinating - not only what you're learning (God is in the details) but in the new vocabulary. Annette & Tory, I'm definitely feeling jealousy here - can I get an intervention?

Unknown said...

In Virginia, our dogs were also trained (I received my training in the Virginia State Police Academy) to bite only fleeing suspects. Our dogs also bark and snarl when people stand still.

Some of the commands we shout to the suspects also serve as commands for the dog. That way, when the canine officer yells something, it doesn't confuse the dog, or the suspect.

My dog, a rottweiler named Blackjack, knew he couldn't bite a suspect who wasn't moving, so he'd bury his nose in the guy's crotch and growl. If the suspect still wouldn't move, Blackjack would nudge the trembling guy with his nose, which, by the way, was still in the guy's crotch.

Anonymous said...

I went to the Hillary rally on Monday in crowded Market Square, and during the lulls I found myself watching the police, the secret service and the dogs. Amazing how they all scanned the crowd at all times--and the dogs did the same thing! One dog was totally focused on a guy in the media pool. Good instincts, that dog.

Annette said...

Lee, did anyone ever try to escape when Blackjack was in that pose?

Annette said...

Nancy, in those kinds of circumstances, the dogs are there more for the "presence" factor. Plus to protect the officers. They really aren't used as crowd control in the ways that earned them a bad reputation back during the civil rights movement protests.

Anonymous said...

I've had a great respect for police dogs every since I was a little kid. A cat had fallen down a window well of an old building and was trapped. My friend and I sought help from a passing canine officer who, after telling his dog to stay, unhooked the leash and used it to snare the cat and pull it out. The dog didn't move -- not even when the cat came into sight and ran off!

Joyce Tremel said...

Since it would cost our dept. more to get a police dog than it would to hire me full time, I've already told the Chief that if we get a dog, it better know how to type.

Anonymous said...

Annette, wow, I'd like to see what you come up when you take bad notes:) Well done. You mention German shepherds. I'm curious did the K-9 units use these types exclusively. In Colorado, we have deputies raise blood hounds (you probably see where I'm going here) We have one or two prisons. In Colorado cops also raise these animals, they're often one of the family, with the exception of blood hounds, which the deputy says have a horrible smell because of their unique tracking glands. I also am impressed with your community response team. Sounds like LE there is very prepared. Thanks for the information! We should pay to attend these Citizens Academies, but thank goodness they don't charge us.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Lee Lofland said, "...I received my training in the Virginia State Police Academy) to bite only fleeing suspects. "

Lee, this excerpt almost takes on a whole new meaning if it weren't for that one parenthsis.

I don't think I would have wanted to meet Blackjack.

Annette, great post, by the way.

Annette said...

Donnell, no, not all K-9s are German Shepherds. They do have one bloodhound in on a pilot program, but we didn't get to see him. We did, however, HEAR him. Definitely a different sound than the German Shepherds barking.

Right now, all the other dogs in Pittsburgh's K-9 unit are German Shepherds, but that's just now. They've had other breeds including Rottweilers, just not at the moment.

As for my notes, you should have seen the stuff I missed!