There are calls some on-duty police dread more than others—a report
of a man about to jump from a bridge onto a busy freeway, for example, or an
apparently psychotic person who is becoming more and more agitated while
walking along the same stretch of sidewalk.
In Rochester, N.Y., however, a growing number of officers rush to these
situations equipped with the knowledge that they have a good chance of
intervening effectively and thus save lives.
They are members of the Rochester Police Department's Emotionally Disturbed
Persons Response Team (EDPRT) and are bringing the skills and knowledge they
have acquired through an intensive two-week course onto the streets and into
the homes of Rochester.
"The officers are better able to work with those in crisis and keep
potentially dangerous situations from getting out of control," said
Cedric Alexander, Ph.D., deputy chief of police for the Rochester Police
Alexander worked as a police officer in Miami for 20 years before deciding
to pursue a doctorate in psychology. He then taught for a time in the
University of Rochester's Department of Psychiatry. Several years ago,
Alexander returned to law enforcement.
After a couple of incidents in 2002 in which two men who had been
exhibiting signs of psychosis died during or shortly after coming into contact
with city police, Alexander decided to take action.
Those incidents, he said, "are the kinds of opportunities you use to
step back and say, Is there something we can do to enhance training and reduce
the likelihood of those situations happening again?"
Alexander relied on his experience as a clinician and educator to develop a
curriculum for a training program that addresses the many aspects of mental
illness that intersect with police work—psychopathology, assisted
outpatient treatment, mental health courts, and medications, for example. He
also developed course material on empathy, ways in which to respond to people
who are hearing voices, and police stress.
Alexander recruited a number of local experts, including his former
colleagues at the University of Rochester's Department of Psychiatry, to teach
the course. Instructors include psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers,
mental health consumers, and members of the police force.
The course has been offered twice so far—in March 2004 and last
January. Pupils have included Rochester police, officers from a number of
other departments in Monroe County, N.Y., the Monroe County Sheriff's
Department, and parole and probation officers.
Police who pass a written examination at the end of the course become
certified by the Rochester Police Department to join the EDPRT, of which there
are 42 members.
Through the training program, the police department has forged
relationships with area hospitals and mental health clinicians, according to
"If we take a person off the street and into one of the emergency
departments or psychiatric units, the staff members know who we are, and we
have a great working relationship with them," he said. "Many of
the folks working in the hospitals have helped to instruct these officers
through the program."
One of those instructors is Laurence Guttmacher, M.D., chief of psychiatry
and acting clinical director of the Rochester Psychiatric Center. He said he
teaches the officers "a kind of DSM-IV 101" in which he
describes various psychiatric disorders and discusses their causes and
Guttmacher is also an associate dean and associate professor of psychiatry
at the University of Rochester.
It was there that he heard a grand-rounds presentation about the EDPRT
training program earlier this year. "I thought it was the greatest thing
since sliced bread," he told Psychiatric News. He subsequently
became involved in the course as an instructor.
As part of his EDPRT duties, Guttmacher critiques the officers during
role-playing exercises staged to sharpen their skills in dealing with people
who have mental illness.
He also spends time talking to the officers about posttraumatic stress
disorder (PTSD) and how to recognize any signs and symptoms in themselves."
This group is at high risk for PTSD," he noted. "Imagine
what it is like to respond to murder scenes, rapes, or devastating auto
accidents day after day."
Guttmacher observed, "The officers are excited to learn this
material... .What struck me is how much they want to understand mental
Some police who are not trained to deal with people with mental illness"
tend to blame and otherwise stigmatize people with mental illness due
to a lack of education," Guttmacher observed.
As commander of the EDPRT and one of the instructors, Sgt. Eric Weaver has
witnessed the benefits of the course firsthand.
"By the end of the course, I saw a group of about 50 people who were
totally transformed," he said. "From day one to day 10, I saw a
complete shift of attitudes and a reduction of stigma" among the
During a role-playing exercise, police officer Joseph McMahon (left)
pretends to be a suicidal teenager who is threatening to jump off a bridge, as
officers Tom Fitzak (center) and Mark Bean attempt to talk him down.
Max Schulte/Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
"There is a great deal of compassion and understanding that springs
from the course," he added.
According to Weaver, one of the most compelling sessions is one in which
consumers from the local branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
stand in front of the law-enforcement officers to discuss their experiences
with mental illness.
"You can hear a pin drop when a consumer is speaking about what it is
like to live with schizophrenia," he noted. Weaver explained that
listening to a person with mental illness who is not in crisis is
destigmatizing. "On the job, we normally only see people when they are
in crisis," he explained.
Perhaps even more compelling is the part of the course in which Weaver
talks with the officers about his own struggles with mental illness.
He was diagnosed in 1996 with major depression. "I was
suicidal—I was hospitalized five times in 1996 and then again in
1998," he said. "I share my experiences because a lot of the
officers have these issues too."
Weaver emphasized that the EDPRT training program "isn't just a
police course; it's a human-being course." ▪