NEW YORK » A woman called Emily, tears streaming down her face, stood on a ledge threatening to jump. For 15 minutes, a police sergeant used the common thread that connects them — they’re both mothers — to gradually talk her out of killing herself.
The scene, played out earlier this month at the New York Police Department’s training facility, was an act, part of a training program meant to help patrol officers in the nation’s largest department better handle the growing number of interactions they have with people in emotional or mental distress.
"Even though it’s a scenario, my hands are like this," said a shaking Sgt. Cecilia Luckie after talking to Erin Shields, the actress portraying Emily. "My mouth is dry."
Patrol officers like Luckie are often first on the scene to the 911 calls and on-the-street pick-ups of people in crisis — a mother calling because her mentally ill son is acting erratically, a person threatening to jump off a building or a homeless veteran acting strangely on a street corner.
Police received more than 130,000 so-called "emotionally disturbed person" calls last year, about 23,000 more than in 2011, an increase experts say mirrors a national trend resulting from too few supportive housing options and services in the wake of a decades-old deinstitutionalization movement.
Advocates for the mentally ill have long complained that hard-charging officers, tactically trained to issue commands and take control, have unnecessarily escalated situations that can sometimes end tragically. At least nine people killed by the NYPD since 2007 had mental illnesses, according to Carla Rabinowitz, of the nonprofit Community Access. But Rabinowitz said more common are interactions that leave them with negative views of the police or send them unnecessarily to jail, a result reflected by the 40 percent of the city jail population with mental health diagnoses.
New York’s program is built off a nationally recognized instructional model, called Crisis Intervention Training, that uses mental health consumers, professionals and police officials to train officers on how to recognize signs of mental illness, respond to such calls and empathize with someone in the throes of a crisis. It emerged in the late 1980s from the Memphis Police Department and is now used by nearly 3,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide. Research has shown its use is associated with higher confidence among officers, better recognition of mental illness and fewer uses of force.
Earlier this summer the NYPD launched a four-day program that will be incorporated into standard training and issued a requirement that officers take annual refresher courses, officials said. The department already has a small, highly-trained unit of officers for mental health cases, but the training is meant to give more cops a better chance at deescalating crisis situations.
Officers taking part in the training are evaluated in real time by a clinical psychologist and instructors during scenes portrayed by John Jay College of Criminal Justice actors like Grant Cooper, who plays a paranoid homeless man named Reverend X screaming into a trash can.
For Cooper, it comes from a familiar place: When he was 12 his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He draws on those memories — including his many 911 calls for help — when he plays his part.
"The police had to escort her many, many times," said Cooper, 52. "And she never got hurt. We were lucky. I didn’t realize how lucky we were."
Cooper simulated someone high on the synthetic marijuana drug K2, doing backstrokes on the sidewalk as officers stood by, letting him tire himself out before rolling him onto his side, putting him in handcuffs and then an ambulance.
More than 270 officers assigned to Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood have already been trained and police officials hope to train 5,500 overall. One of two city mental health drop-off centers, designed to give police an alternative place to send people in crisis besides jail or an emergency room, will open in the neighborhood later this year.
"If we get those kinds of responses where people feel they’ve got more tools in their toolbox, if they feel more confident and if they can respond more appropriately more of the time, that’s exactly what we want," said Susan Herman, the NYPD deputy commissioner for collaborative policing.
In another exercise, former soap opera actor Nathan Purdee, playing a Vietnam war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder experiencing a flashback, didn’t quite calm down until one of the officers on patrol talking to him convinced him to sit down on a bench and shared a personal detail: He himself was a military veteran and understood what he was going through.
"You didn’t challenge him," said Det. James Shanahan, one of the instructors, after the exercise ended. "You cared for him."