LA County sheriff's deputies get specialized training to handle mentally-ill inmates

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One of the most difficult situations for law enforcement officers is dealing with the mentally ill. There's a growing awareness to better train officers to handle such situations. (KABC)

One of the most difficult situations law enforcement officers find themselves in is dealing with the mentally ill. There's a growing awareness that something needs to be done to better train officers to handle these situations.

When mentally-ill individuals act out and behave irrationally, they can end up injured or dying at the hands of police. Experts repeatedly analyze such difficult moments in search for a better way.

That brings us to the largest psychiatric ward in the country - the Los Angeles County Jail.

It's estimated that one in every five inmates is mentally ill. Bipolar, schizophrenic, depression - disorders that make these inmates dangerous to themselves and people around them.

Imagine the difficulty in keeping everyone here safe.

"That's why it's so important to ask them if they want to kill themselves," an instructor advises new deputies in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

These new deputies are going to be working in the jails. But, unlike past generations, this group is better prepared for the mentally ill - thanks to this course called Divert.

"It's very important since the mental health population within our jail has grown tremendously," said LASD Chief David Fender.

Fender says it's one of the best training programs in the country in effectively and humanely dealing with people with psychological disorders.

"How you talk to that person, how you try to get that person to go along with you, to get them the care that you need, you use different skill sets," Fender described.

Those skills are honed in the classroom through role play and simulation.

The simulator put me to the test. An inmate was having an episode, threatening to kill himself by jumping off a railing.

"I have nothing to live for. She left me, she left me," the inmate says.

"Hang on Erick. Let's calm down. Let's talk this out. What specifically makes you angry right now?" I ask.

"I don't want to talk to anybody," the inmate responds.

Afterward, Deputy Melvin Joseph gave me a critique.

"One of the phrases you used during the de-escalation you asked him to calm down. Now, we know that doesn't normally work with too many people when you ask them to calm down. Even in a good tone, telling somebody to calm down usually amps them back up," Joseph explained - his insight was invaluable.

The role play is intense. Deputy Bria Beardsley has a similar challenge. An instructor plays the part of the inmate.

"It really helps confidence. This is a really important week for training. I think the more that you practice the more knowledge that you have, the better that I am going to be able to feel when I actually do come across it in real life," Beardsley said.

There are few environments as difficult and dangerous as where these inmates are headed, but these deputies say they are ready, and for families of mentally-ill inmates, that means there's hope.

During the program, which lasts several days, a psychologist is on hand to help deputies better understand mental illness.

As soon as this group is done, a new group moves in. The department says it's doing all it can to train as many deputies as possible, since there's clearly a huge need for this program.

Related Topics:
los angeles county sheriff's departmentjailmental healthLos Angeles County
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