Training challenges officers to complete tasks while being assaulted by voices
Published 7:10 pm, Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Do you ever find yourself in a crowded room with people yelling and talking over each other and find it difficult to focus on a given task? Imagine then you hear voices ranging in volume and intensity all the time -- even when you are completely alone.
For many who suffer with mental illnesses, completing even the simple tasks can be a monumental effort which becomes complicated even further when that individual is being questioned by police officers.
In order to give law enforcement officers a better understanding as to how a mental illness can impact an individual's ability to handle themselves, the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement held a training session at Silver Hill Hospital. Louise Pyers, executive director of CABLE, explained the training is done because more often than not, police officers are the first line of workers who encounter mentally ill people.
"This training was brought about as law enforcement agencies and the community realized there is a need for it," Pyers said. "There have been situations where officers have felt threatened by an individuals's actions and had no choice but to shoot."
The training gives the officers a better understanding of what some people deal with, but Pyers stressed the training did not mean an officer would not use lethal force on a person simply because they suffer from a mental illness.
Pyers said part of the training involves Crisis Intervention Teams which work to establish better relationships between police, family members, mental health workers and people with mental illnesses.
"We probably have at least 50 officers who attend each training session and we've had to turn people away because there are so many who want to participate," Pyers said. "Officers say this is some of the best training they have ever received and what they learn here they can use in all aspects of the job."
Wednesday's training session prepared officers to handle people who hear voices. However, it is important to note that hearing voices does not mean the person is suffering is suffering from schizophrenia, Pyers said.
"People who are suffering from drug-induced psychosis can also hear voices," she said.
In order to understand how difficult the constant barrage of noise from multiple voices can be, officers were given an mp3 player and headset which would play a selection of voices ranging in volume and intensity. At times the voices would cut out before coming back on louder and stronger than before.
Before the simulation began, officers were warned that each of their experiences would be different depending on what the voices were saying. One officer could be listening to a loud barrage of angry insults while another would hear incessant whispering. There could also be moments where the officers wouldn't hear any voices at all before they were suddenly assaulted by multiple voices yelling at them.
New Canaan Officer Andrea Alexander, 23-year veteran of the force, received her first task after donning the headset. All she needed to do was complete a word search. Before beginning the word search, Alexander said she had slight advantage with dealing with the voices.
"I have very good training because I'm a parent with two children," Alexander said. "I was also a den mother and if you can stand in a room with 50 screaming girls and have a complete thought, then this is nothing."
Despite her prior training with distracting voices, Alexander did struggle with her word search.
"I really stink at these," Alexander said as she scanned the scrambled letters looking for a word.
Her frustration seemed to stem from her inability to locate the necessary words and not from the voices playing over her headset. Eventually, one of the attendants for the simulation came over to replace her word search with a list of questions. Alexander's task was to answer five of the seven questions on the sheet. She went step further and answer all of the questions and readily completed the task.
As each officer successfully completed a task, they were required to speak to one of the facilitators for the simulation to be graded on their performance. One of the facilitators explained the simulation was designed in a manner which would deliberately stress the officers as they worked on their specific job. If an officer appeared to be struggling, a facilitator would try either give them a new task or try to give them hints. However, each facilitator was given instructions to offer help in a sarcastic demeanor in an effort to elicit a response from the officers.
After Alexander completed a task which involved her retrieving a VIN number from a specific car, she said the voices from her headset began yelling at her and telling her she was doing something wrong.
"The voices keep yelling at me to stop," Alexander said as she wrote down the vehicle's VIN number and began walking back to the building to turn in task.
One of Alexander's final tasks was an evaluation by a doctor. The doctor asked Alexander a series of questions ranging from what day and year it was to more complex questions such as listing a series of objects and then having Alexander repeat them back. Alexander had little, if any, trouble completing the tasks.
When asked if the constant barrage of voices was disorienting or made completing tasks any harder, Alexander said it would if she let the voices overwhelm her.
"If you allow the voices to play on you it's hard," Alexander said. "For me, I've always been able to shut the world out when I need to. Sometimes it's necessary to do that because more often than not, all hell is breaking loose when we're doing our job."
New Canaan Officer George Caponera said having to listen to the voices as he completed tasks was distracting and frustrating at times.
"There were certain tasks like when the doctor was asking questions and I had to repeat certain things back or give details about a story I just heard that were difficult," Caponera said. "I've been able to complete all the tasks but I really had to focus on what I was doing and try to drown out the voices."
This year's training marks the sixth year for the program and Silver Hill has hosted the event every year. Since its inception, more 1,200 officers in Connecticut have received CIT training, Pyers said.