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The IMPD team adding more ‘empathy’ to policing

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For several days in a row, Sgt. Lance Dardeen’s squad car was the only transportation an Indianapolis man was comfortable riding in. 

The two went to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments and errands around Central Indiana, making small talk, side by side in the front.

Dardeen said the man, who he said suffered from schizophrenia, wouldn’t leave the house and didn’t have groceries. 

“He was very comfortable with me because I was protecting him as I was able to take him grocery shopping because he would only get [in] a marked police car,” Dardeen said. “That’s how scared this individual was.”

It’s a typical run for Dardeen as a member of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Behavioral Health Services Unit.

The Behavioral Health Unit, formed in 2015, assigns a behavioral health detective to every district except downtown, each partnered with a master’s level clinician from the Sandra Eskenazi Mental Health Center. The detectives are dispatched for non-emergency events where someone may be experiencing a personal crisis. 

“Individuals that may be having barriers to success,” Dardeen said. “They maybe have had multiple relapses and maybe their family is frustrated and they’re just kind of struggling with their mental health.”

The person he drove around was afraid of going outside alone, Dardeen said.

His unit is trained to speak in calm, non-threatening voices, look for signs of anxiety such as rapid breathing, shaking and fast talking and to identify triggers that could make someone with mental illness nervous or scared.

The end goal is to always seek to de-escalate a situation with empathy, he said. 

“I think that word is thrown around so much,” Dardeen said, “If we can really see with the eyes of the other and listen with the ears and feel with the heart of another … then I think we’re going to start out on a good foundation.”

In 2017, IMPD also launched the Mobile Crisis Assistance Teams, or MCAT — first responders trained to handle active, emergency calls with people with mental health, behavioral or substance abuse issues. 

Both programs aim to pair people with social services instead of heading down a path toward incarceration. 

“MCAT is fulfilling its mission to divert residents in mental health and substance use disorder crises away from the jail,” Eric Grommon, interim director of the Center for Health and Justice Research at Indiana University, said in an email. In an initial report to study MCAT’s effectiveness, Grommon said the program has only a 2% arrest rate and two-thirds of MCAT runs freed up IMPD and the Indianapolis Fire Department to answer other emergency calls. 

Grommon said they weren’t able to monitor how emergency calls for service involving residents in either mental health or substance use crises were managed without MCAT services. Researchers say they hope to be able to share preliminary findings next year.

Sgt. John C. Perrine, a spokesperson for the Indiana State Police, said his troopers also rely on MCAT’s services for calls along highways that may involve someone in distress. 

“They’ve been very helpful on some of those situations when we know we’re dealing with a certain mental illness or disability,” he said. “The more tools we can add to our toolbox, the better equipped we’re going be to deal with any situation that arises.”

Though there isn’t specific crisis training for troopers, Perrine says seven troopers are set to undergo crisis intervention training to become certified in November. 

Dardeen says every officer in the department goes through an eight-hour mental health first aid course. Also, 40-hour crisis intervention team, or CIT, training is offered on a voluntary basis twice a year. 

When it comes to a recent social movement to reallocate police resources to better serve community needs, Dardeen said he spends time thinking about how to answer to calls to defund militarized police efforts. 

“I do get asked that,” he said. “I think agencies and local governments are trying to figure out exactly how that’s going to look. Would I like to have more teams out there on an active basis? Yes, I would. But I hope people realize it’s going to take time to do that because we want to do it in the right way.”

State and local governments spent $115 billion on policing in 2017, according to data compiled by the Urban Institute.

Dardeen says he tells community members to also be intentional to ask for the help they seek.

“We tell family members that if you have to call 911 for maybe a behavioral or mental health emergency, ask specifically for that CIT officer,” he said. “[We really have] time and patience.” 

This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder.

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