By: Nicole Stone/Assistant News Director
Police officers have a mandatory 48 hour long training process ahead of them if they’re looking to protect Panthers on campus, according to FIU Police Chief Alexander Casas.
The Crisis Intervention Training is devoted to educating officers about cognitive and mental disabilities and what options police have when responding to calls that may involve mentally disabled persons. Eight hours are then reserved specifically to address autism spectrum disorder and how police can better handle it.
“We basically get about a semester’s worth of training to address mental and cognitive disability,” Casas said to Student Media.
Casas said that the training also benefits the responding officer, as they come out feeling much more prepared to handle these situations.
While this training is available to all South Florida law enforcement, it is mandatory at FIU, landing the FIUPD with the highest completion percentage in South Florida, Casas said.
This wasn’t always the case, however.
“When I first got [to FIU] almost eight years ago, not a lot of our officers had that type of training, and coming from Miami-Dade, where so many of our officers did, I thought it would be very good for us because a lot of the calls we handle here are mental health related,” Casas said.
These calls, according to Casas, range from anxiety attacks, to more escalated situations where a person poses a risk to themselves or others.
“Students many times find themselves out of that high school structure and in a suddenly very demanding high performance academic environment where you’re kind of on your own to do your stuff,” he said. “Many are away from home for the first time so they don’t have their support system with them and they have an episode.”
But the way these calls were handled in the past strike a considerable contrast from when Chief Casas became a cop, he said.
“When I became a police officer 28 years ago, we didn’t get any of this training. So I know that I took people to jail that could have been Baker Acted,” he said. “But because they struck someone over the head with a machete, as a young officer, you were taught that you should take that person to jail, and then let them get a psychological evaluation when they go to their first appearance. We know today that that’s one of the worst things you could do.”
The 1971 Baker Act, or the Florida Mental Health Act allows a judge, law enforcer, doctor or mental health professional to admit an individual for mental health evaluation or institutionalization without needing their consent.
There are three criteria an individual must meet for one of these professionals to have grounds to enact the Baker Act: the individual must have refused voluntary examination due to their mental illness, must present reason to believe that they are mentally ill and must also exhibit a likelihood of harming themselves or others.
An individual who satisfies this criteria will be Baker Acted by FIUPD, Casas said. However, if the responding officer does not feel that there is a large threat to the person’s or other’s wellbeing, FIUPD will not resort to Baker Act, but will go through other options instead.
The individual is given the option to admit themselves to the healthcare facility and FIUPD will transport them or, if CAPS is available, the officer will take the student to CAPS.
In addition to the Baker Act, more routes have opened to law enforcement when it comes to directing a mentally ill individual to the appropriate service.
Judge Steven Leifman, associate administrative judge for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, is the one responsible for the shift towards alternatives to jail for the mentally ill, according to Casas.
Leifman’s program, The Criminal Mental Health Project, aims to support those with serious mental illness who have committed nonviolent crimes and are either awaiting trial or who have not been jailed.
For every 1,000 calls made to the Crisis Intervention Team, 535 people were helped access treatment, 196 were diverted from Miami-Dade county jail, and only an average of 1.9 arrests were made, according to an email Leifman sent to Student Media.
Since the program’s introduction in 2010, 38,000 people have been diverted to crisis units.
“Leifman’s the one that I would say is primarily responsible for this shift in law enforcement in South Florida. And he’ll tell you: in the beginning it wasn’t easy. We’re so much better than we were back then,” Casas said.
As for physical disabilities, Casas said, there is no specific training for that.
“That may be more of a ‘how do I get you out of a building when I need to’ or, if I have to arrest you, how do I go about doing that?”
Some conditions either neurological or diabetic, among others, can cause an individual to exhibit slurred speech or confusion, which, according to Casas, is very similar behavior to someone who is drunk. Police utilize context clues to tell the difference.
“Even when you’re inebriated, you still sometimes listen or a friend will take you and get you out of the situation because they were with you while you were drinking. When we find someone by themselves, we may be more inclined to assume it may be a medical episode,” he said.
If a diabetic is slurring their words, Casas said, they may be able to say out loud that they’re diabetic, and a police officer can pat them down to find their ID and may find a sugar measuring device.
Other conditions, such as epilepsy, cause an individual to blackout during an episode. Many students with epilepsy have come to FIUPD to notify them of their condition, according to Casas, which he said has been a huge help.
“We’ve had people go to the police station and say, ‘I have epilepsy. This is my name.’ and believe it or not, we encounter those students again. For example, we have an employee who has episodes often, but she came to us and said ‘I have epilepsy. You can encounter me. Help me. It’s okay,’” he said.
Casas recommends that those with conditions that cause them to lose consciousness, especially epilepsy, let people know so that they are aware of what is happening when it happens, and that a seizure is not related to some other medical issue.
“If you’re an employee, let your coworkers know. Feel comfortable letting the police department know. Our dispatch remembers the names,” Casas said. “If you’re a student, do the same thing. You don’t need to walk into class and announce ‘Hi! I have epilepsy!’ but it’s okay to let people know. The more open you are about it, the easier it is for people to get you the help you need.”