Empathy now bigger component in crisis intervention training

Empathy now bigger component in crisis intervention training

(Peter Samore/KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The bedlam included a grown man on top of a cabinet in a Superman onesie.

“Stranger danger!” the actor/police officer screamed. “Where’s my cat?”

Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Rusty Hurt wondered what he walked into.

“Most of our training is either traffic safety, or medical, but this is something completely different,” Hurt said.

Outside the old Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, another “crisis” was unfolding.

“Just put the knife down!” another actor/police officer commanded.

“You know I don’t have a chance!” was the reply.

In October, about 30 officers from across Utah took part in the 40-hour program called Crisis Intervention Team Utah. It’s designed to help police control and calm situations with volatile suspects.

Salt Lake City Police Det. Brandee Casias, who is also a psychologist, directs it.

“We’re starting to understand that people need more of a response than just a criminal response,” she said. “We need mental health response as well.”

Casias brings in mental health professionals to teach participants how to communicate with mentally unstable individuals.

UHP trooper Bonnie Kunz has learned to better identify mental illness and distress.

We're starting to understand that people need more of a response than just a criminal response. We need mental health response as well.

–Det. Brandee Casias, SLC police

“Before you can think possibly that guy’s high, he’s really not high,” she said. “Or, that guy’s intoxicated, he’s really not intoxicated.”

And instead of lethal force, Unified Police officer Rob Walser, an Iraq War veteran, will share his own background with people he encounters, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I have on jobs before,” he said. “When I returned from Iraq, I had a hard time adjusting.”

That’s a major theme for Hurt in crisis intervention training.

“We need to try and understand, have a little more empathy,” he said. “And that’s the big thing, a little more empathy of what people might be going through.”

Director Scott Stephenson of POST – Peace Officer Standards and Training – says officers cannot worry about second-guessing themselves.

“If it is a life-or-death situation, we cannot be afraid of the consequences,” Stephenson said. “Our actions are justified and warranted to maintain safety.”

However, the training is not mandatory, and police and sheriff’s departments must pay for it.

Still, Gina Thayer appreciates the training. Salt Lake City police shot and killed her nephew, Dillon Taylor, in August.

“I’m sure everybody doesn’t know that both of Dillon’s parents have died very tragic deaths,” she said. “I’m sure they don’t know that his aunt was killed in a car accident last year.”

Thayer hopes, in the future, police will follow through with their empathy training.

At the time of the Crisis Intervention Team training, KSL Newsradio began its open records requests into officer-involved shootings. It published the results on Thursday.


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