Sheriff’s deputy recognized for crisis intervention efforts

May 27

A Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office deputy has received statewide recognition for his work on the department’s crisis intervention team, a program launched less than two years ago to help officers handle cases that involve mental health concerns.

Deputy Andrew Raughley, a four-year law enforcement veteran, was named the 2014 Virginia Crisis Intervention Team Deputy of the Year at the annual Virginia Crisis Intervention Team Coalition awards ceremony Tuesday in Richmond. Raughley was recognized specifically for his response to a March 2013 incident involving a man who had stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder and had become aggressive with family members.

Raughley, who was trained in crisis intervention techniques in 2012 and is now an instructor for the sheriff’s office, said the man was distraught over a recent breakup and the loss of his job.

“He was trying to handle his illness by himself,” Raughley said. “It was obvious he was in crisis. . . . I was able to reason with him that what he was doing wasn’t working, and [I] helped him realize that he needed more help than what he was able to do himself.”

When addressing someone with a mental illness or disability, Raughley said, patience is an especially vital skill, and a focal point of the sheriff’s office’s 40-hour crisis intervention training program.

With instruction from mental health experts, Raughley said, the course aims to help deputies understand mental illness through role-playing, using technology to mimic symptoms experienced by patients with schizophrenia or other mental disorders.

“We put ear buds in everyone’s ears, and take them through a simulation of common daily tasks that anyone would attempt to do, and try to make them feel what it’s like to be someone with voices occurring in the back of their head,” Raughley said. “It’s really distracting, and very hard to focus — even just to count money or make a purchase, or have a conversation with a law enforcement officer.”

That particular lesson, Raughley said, “is a big ‘aha!’ moment for a lot of deputies.”

The program often marks an important shift in perspective for deputies who had been skeptical about a more patient and compassionate approach, said Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. “Mike” Chapman.

“The normal phrase for this in law enforcement is ‘hugs for thugs,’ ” Chapman said, “but after they went through the program, they realized there is a great skill set to learn here, and a better way to address this problem.”

The program, which has had four training courses since October 2012, aims to equip law enforcement officers with better options for dealing with people who are mentally ill. By connecting them with support services that can offer treatment and assistance rather than processing them through the criminal justice system, both the public and law enforcement agencies benefit, Chapman said.

“We look at the number of people we encounter on a yearly basis — last year it was more than 500 mental-health-related calls — and the time commitment there is significant to deputies,” Chapman said. “It’s important that they have other options.”

The program is a collaboration of the sheriff’s office, other local law enforcement agencies and mental health organizations, including Loudoun County Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services; Friends of Loudoun Mental Health; the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; and Inova Loudoun Hospital Center.

The sheriff’s office reports that the program has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community — the department was recognized last year by the Loudoun County Friends of Mental Health for its support of the mental health community — but that there was also public concern surrounding an incident last May in which a mentally disturbed woman wielding a knife at a Sterling Costco store was fatally shot by a deputy.

That incident was a tragedy, Chapman said, adding that crisis intervention training won’t always allow deputies to defuse every dangerous situation.

“There are going to be situations like you had in Costco, where things move so fast, and you don’t have the opportunity to employ some of these tactics,” he said. “The threat of life and death can happen so quickly that the deputies have to take whatever action is necessary to resolve the situation. But on the other hand, many situations don’t require that immediacy, and there’s time to de-escalate things.”

Raughley said the training helped him immediately identify signs that the man in the March 2013 incident was suffering from a mental disorder.

“Just at the start of the conversation, you could see his emotions going up and down, which is something the training helps you recognize,” Raughley said. “The training also helps you get past the stigma. . . . A lot of people with mental health issues are afraid to admit it because they feel it’s a weakness rather than something like any other sickness, like cancer. I made him understand that I knew this was nothing he had done, or failed to do.”

The man agreed to seek further treatment and resume his medication. Raughley also continued to work with his family members to connect them to other support resources, the sheriff’s office said.

His efforts paid off. Raughley said he recently ran into the man’s father, who reported that his son had found a new job and was doing very well. “It was a really hard time, but his father showed great appreciation for how we handled it,” Raughley said.

So far, 14 percent of the sheriff’s office deputies have been trained in crisis intervention techniques, Chapman said. By fall, all of the department’s dispatchers will also have been trained, enabling them to identify situations in which mental health is involved, effectively communicate with the caller and contact a crisis intervention team deputy to respond to the call, he said.

The department’s initial goal was to have 25 percent of its deputies go through crisis intervention training, Chapman said. He hopes they can surpass even that number.

“Honestly, I’d like to have all my deputies trained in this,” he said. “It’s just an incredibly valuable skill set.”

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