Timmy Rose of the People's Response Team playacts a moment of distress at the workshop on alternatives to calling police during mental health crises. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

About two dozen people gathered in a community arts space in West Town on Saturday morning for a workshop titled “Alternatives to Calling Police During Mental Health Crises.” The training was hosted by Make Yourself Useful—a group “committed to actively fortifying POC-led racial justice movements”—and led by abolitionist organizers from disability rights group Nothing About Us Without Us and the People’s Response Team. Armed with statistics about the deadliness of police encounters for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, and a familiarity with the depth—or lack thereof—of police Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, the organizers introduced attendees to a variety of strategies for helping people experiencing a crisis to cope with it without dialing 911.

According to a 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a third to one half of people killed by police nationwide have a disability—and most of those are mental illness, autism, or developmental disabilities. And according to a 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police interaction than other civilians.

The police being helpful “is not a reality to most people” experiencing a mental health crisis, explained Shannon Benaitis, a 20-year veteran of the social services sector who’s led crisis intervention training for police, firefighters, and EMTs. Even when police departments offer CIT training to officers, she added, it can be as short as five hours and and often isn’t mandatory. (In its 2017 lawsuit against the city, the ACLU criticized CPD for failing to maintain data about use-of-force incidents against people with disabilities and cited numerous anecdotes of violent responses by police officers to individuals in the midst of mental health crises.)

The first part of the workshop—which was conceived by local disability rights advocate Euree Kim and was designed in collaboration with people directly impacted by police violence—included small-group discussions about why our reflex is to dial 911 when we see someone apparently experiencing a mental health crisis. Attendees (who were mostly white) said they didn’t know what else to do, since they’d been taught from childhood to call the police when someone looks to be in trouble—especially if they’re suicidal or showing signs of aggression. Some pointed out that it felt like an easy answer, one that provided the satisfaction of feeling like you were being helpful without really doing any work. Others talked about the way we’re taught to fear unusual behavior and how feeling frightened or uncomfortable was enough reason for many people to call the cops.

Benaitis and cofacilitators Timmy Rose and Miguel Rodriguez had the group brainstorm how communities could create localized crisis-response strategies that didn’t involve the police. Attendees imagined building neighborhood volunteer networks and phone trees or organizing drop-in centers with mental health resources. 

The second half of the workshop focused on concrete things we could do instead of reaching for the phone when we encounter people in distress. The facilitators first explained how to identify a situation that might warrant intervention. We shouldn’t assume that people talking to themselves, pacing, or engaging in a repetitive (nonharmful) activity require immediate help, they said. An unusual appearance or bad hygiene aren’t signs of an acute crisis, either. But agitation, physical aggression, irritability, suicidal gestures or threats, self-injurious behavior, and obvious intoxication may require intervention. And if we take it upon ourselves to intervene, the goal is to deescalate the situation.

Deescalation consists of a mind-set, language, and actions that a person takes when trying to connect with someone in a state of mental distress. “When I used to train staff in social service agencies, the very first thing I used to teach them is to introduce themselves,” Benaitis explained. Though it seems obvious, simply telling a person your name is a way to demonstrate your openness and empathy. It’s also a way to ratchet down the intensity of a tense interaction. Deescalation should come from a place of empathy and patience, and if we decide to do it we should be willing to collaborate with the person in crisis, not just tell them what to do, Rodriguez said. Often people experiencing a mental health crisis know what can soothe them, and their own expertise about their bodies and minds shouldn’t be discounted.

When speaking to someone in crisis, we shouldn’t blame or accuse them, lie to them (about who we are or what we can do for them, for example), demonstrate disbelief about their experience, or make demands. “Many of us want to jump right in and solve the problem,” Benaitis said. “But in the moment it’s about trying to understand and reflect what the person is experiencing and what they’re communicating about that.” 

Ask simple questions, one at a time, and use plain language. Even if the person in crisis is nonverbal, he or she may have a language tool or another way to communicate, especially to a patient, nonjudgmental presence. The goal should be to figure out what the person is feeling and to help them redirect their energy away from harmful action.

Rose made a specific suggestion if we encountered someone suicidal: “If you’re feeling comfortable, try to support them in that moment. We advocate asking them directly if they’re considering killing themselves,” he said. “Ask if they have a tool or a plan, and then ask if they’re comfortable enough sharing that plan or handing you the tools.” He also advised us to ask if the person has already executed their plan—such as ingesting something harmful.

After establishing a rapport with the person in crisis, it may be a good idea to move to a different location—especially if there’s an environmental trigger to the person’s distress, like loud music or a crowd. But the facilitators emphasized that we shouldn’t try to touch or transport anyone without their consent.

Our physical posture is just as important as our tone and choice of words, they added. “Position yourself where a person can see you,” Rose explained, “where you’re not an alarming or threatening presence.” He  demonstrated best practices for body language: open rather than crossed arms, hands relaxed rather than on hips. “Being able to see your mouth and your body and your hands is a useful thing,” he said. “Anything with your hands around your hips can be triggering [to the person in crisis] because of weapons.”

And what if the person in crisis has a weapon? Here the facilitators stressed that they didn’t have any hard rules and were careful not to suggest that we put ourselves in danger. “More often than not if an individual in a mental health crisis grabs something as a weapon it’s gonna be in self defense because they’re scared or having paranoia,” Benaitis said. “Sometimes you can say, ‘I see you’re holding a knife in your hand, are you feeling scared right now?’ or ‘Can you trust me enough to put that knife down while we talk?’ or ‘I know you won’t hurt anybody but I’m concerned there are other people around who may think you’ll hurt somebody so can you put it down?'”

And what if the person has a gun? Here we really have to use our own best judgment, she said, but she encouraged us not to be afraid to ask for the person to hand it over or to put it down. Rose underscored the importance of making requests rather than demands or threats, which can escalate tensions.

“Try something like, ‘Have you been in this situation before?'” Benaitis added. After that we could ask them what’s helped them feel better before or if there’s someone we could call on their behalf. “That way you’re not barking orders and you’re not being a superhero,” she said. “Let them be the expert.”

The workshop attendees then split into pairs to practice the suggested conversational techniques. One person would speak about something frustrating them; the other would attempt to “reflect” the feelings, needs, and values they were expressing. The exercise revealed that it can be difficult to show you’re actively listening and to demonstrate empathy without simply peppering someone with questions or talking about yourself in an attempt to relate.

Some people began questioning their ordinary communication styles. “When I listen I do a lot of nodding—does that mean that I’m agreeing?” one young woman asked, concerned she might be affirming someone’s harmful intentions. Another attendee pointed out that it was challenging to validate what someone was saying without egging them on.

The potential difficulty of intervening in a crisis oneself, rather than calling the police to handle it, became even more apparent when the facilitators playacted crisis situations with individual volunteers in front of the group.

Rodriguez pretended to be on the verge of taking a two-by-four to a dollar store window as he vented about being watched and questioned by the cashier. The volunteer introduced himself as Steve and asked what was going on. When Rodriguez talked about how angry he felt at being questioned in a store he’d been going to for years, in a neighborhood he’d been living in for decades, Steve affirmed his frustration. But when Rodriguez said he was about to smash up the store, Steve asked “Do you really think that will solve anything?” Rodriguez stopped the scene and explained that this question wouldn’t help resolve the immediate crisis and should be reserved for a conversation later on, “off the field.” Instead, Steve could have asked him to put the weapon down and suggested they walk around.

Benaitis said it can be helpful to guide the person in crisis to an “incompatible” action. “Just asking if they can do something incompatible with what they’re doing right now—like ‘Give me a high five’ or ‘Walk with me over here.'”

Another volunteer reluctantly went up before the group as Rose playacted a distressed partygoer. As Rose raved about the frustration of being brought to a noisy space with irritating lights by friends who subsequently abandoned him, Ruby introduced herself, then worked to reflect his state of mind. She said she could hear his frustration and that it sounded like the situation “is a little more than you bargained for.” As she reflected his feelings, Rose said more about what was bothering him. When she narrowed down the problem to the lights and music, she casually suggested they step outside, and Rose agreed.

The final scenario was perhaps the most challenging, as Rodriguez pretended to storm into a crowded coffee shop, sit down with another patron, and shove their stuff aside. When an uncertain volunteer asked what was wrong, Rodriguez declared he wanted to be left alone. Several attendees tried the scenario—one chose not to continue the conversation but remained at the table with the person in crisis. Another tried to continue talking, to which Rodriguez responded with hostility. It was clear that no one quite knew what to do, the desire to take action conflicting with Rodriguez’s rejections.

Sometimes people just need to be left alone, Rodriguez said afterward. And sometimes, merely reflecting the person’s words by saying “It sounds like you want to be left alone” opens a floodgate of conversation. “I’d always encourage you to ask: ‘What do you need?'” he added. “It’s a magical question.”

To be sure, the two-and-a-half-hour workshop raised more questions than it answered. But after the event Rose told me that putting these crisis intervention skills into action in the real world can be easier than it looked for the volunteers engaging with pretend crises. This summer, Rose said, he was able to deescalate a distressed friend of a man recently shot by police. This man was “agitated and also very checked out emotionally,” Rose recalled. “I established a relationship with him.” He said the interaction didn’t feel forced and he wasn’t so worried about saying the wrong thing. A mind-set of empathy and support came naturally once he began speaking with the man. “It was actually really easy to figure out what happened and what this person needed right now.” Rose said he could see the man relaxing and returning to a more grounded state as they talked. “He started communicating more, sharing some info.” Together they were able to map out what the man needed to do during the next couple of hours and Rose said the crisis seemed to be mitigated.

If nothing else the workshop was an exercise in scrutinizing our own communication styles and the degree to which we’ve relegated taking care of friends, neighbors, or strangers in distress to law enforcement authorities. In the end the facilitators shared a list of mental health resources and organizations people could turn to for help and guidance with their own and others’ crises, such as the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, the Illinois disability rights group Equip for Equality, and Sista Afya, a local black women’s mental health advocacy organization. These and other resources as well as information about upcoming workshops can also be found on the their Facebook page. Saturday’s workshop attendees were encouraged to take home a flowchart designed to get them thinking and when and if they really need to call the cops.