Officers Learn to Help Veterans in Crisis

The Miami Herald

September 29, 2008, Orlando, FL – Though aging vets from past wars present ongoing problems, Barbara Lewis, crisis intervention training commander for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies are facing the issue more now because of veterans home from the current wars.

”We’re seeing it in these economic times: stressors in their lives pushing them over the edge,” Lewis said. “Anything we can do as law-enforcement officers to protect our returning vets is important.”

Given the troubling incidence of post-traumatic-stress disorder — or PTSD — associated with recently returned troops, mental-health experts have pushed for alternative ways for law enforcement to deal with vets in nonviolent incidents.

A recent RAND Corp. study found nearly 20 percent of returning troops — about 300,000 — have PTSD or major depression.

Of those, only 53 percent sought treatment. Many others are battling traumatic brain injuries and depression that also can alter mood and behavior.

”A lot of these kids in Iraq and Afghanistan are 21-, 22- and 23-year-old kids,” said Lt. Victor Uvalle, who commands the crisis intervention team for the Orlando Police Department, which partners with Lakeside Alternatives for training. “We need to understand they are people in crisis, and that could be from a variety of things.”

In the field, police officers trained in crisis intervention try to calm volatile situations by building rapport, Uvalle said. They ask simple questions: What’s your name? Where do you live? Are you a veteran? Officers also probe the subject’s mental state: Are you hearing noises?

Keeping vets out of the justice system is an important payoff of crisis intervention training, said Michele Saunders, executive director of Florida’s Partners in Crisis, a grass-roots mental-health and substance-abuse coalition that during the past four years has pushed for expanding such programs statewide.

”It helps that veterans feel the officer is here to help them, that they will take care of them, especially if the veteran is paranoid or having a flashback,” she said.

Since debuting its program, Act Corp., a Daytona Beach community mental-health center, has trained 468 police officers and community leaders in Volusia and Flagler counties.

”The goal . . . is to show law-enforcement officers or other first responders that . . . you get to see people at their worst,” said Sini Summerlin, a crisis intervention training coordinator with Act Corp. “I want to show that these are everybody’s sisters, brothers and mothers.”

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