How VCU Police is changing its approach to mental health and crisis response
By Corey Byers
University Public Affairs
When asked how often he relies on his mental health first-aid training as he works with community members, Lee Olds is very quick to answer.
“Many times, too many to count.”
Olds, who has worked at the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department for nine years, is a detective in the investigations unit and serves as a trainer for mental health first-aid training and crisis intervention training.
In his words, mental health first aid is an early intervention for someone who is struggling with a mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder or substance abuse.
“If you speak with someone and notice things they say, or their behaviors, you can get them resources,” said Olds. “You may be able to identify what condition they have and the goal is to get them help before they go into crisis.”
Alternatively, crisis intervention training is meant to address those who are actively experiencing a mental health crisis and who may exhibit extreme behaviors.
“It is 100% geared to get people in crisis to go with you to the hospital and voluntarily seek treatment, and is very effective when the officer is trying to build rapport,” Olds said.
“The training … definitely serves a purpose more than just mental health. In communicating with others, when the other person is angry, the approach helps the officer bring the other person down to a baseline and have a conversation that's not run by emotion, but facts of the situation.”
In fall 2020, the VCU Police Department joined the International Association of Chiefs of Police One Mind Campaign and pledged that all sworn police officers would receive either mental health first-aid training or crisis intervention training by May 2021.
Fulfilling the One Mind Campaign
As of March, VCU Police fulfilled its pledge with all officers receiving one or the other, along with select civilian dispatchers in the department's emergency communications center.
While the department had started looking at the One Mind Campaign in 2019, calls for police reform in spring 2020, and subsequent safety and well-being initiatives announced by VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., were catalysts for VCU Police's formal pledge.
The goal of both trainings has been to equip police officers with communication skills to better serve the mental health needs of individuals. At VCU, that may be students, employees, local residents who are traveling through campus or guests.
Nicole Dailey, assistant chief of VCU Police, said one of the key tenets of calls for police reform nationwide, and at VCU, is that communities feel as though law enforcement has not taken a healthier stance in responding to mental health needs and persons experiencing a crisis.
“We are doing our due diligence and this change in training increases the resources we have when responding to someone,” Dailey said. “We are likely to not have to use anything on our belt, and instead we are using our presence and words.”
Olds says the value of the training for officers is learning how best to communicate effectively.
“The more training and experience you have, the easier it is to come to a positive conclusion, either by having the person voluntarily go to seek treatment, or for the officer not having to use force.”
This month, VCU Police also started new courses to address officers' conduct. Officers are learning how to intervene safely when their peers escalate a situation unnecessarily, make a mistake or violate policy.
In early 2021, John Venuti, VCU's associate vice president for public safety and chief of police, sent two officers to the Georgetown University Law Center to participate in the center's Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement project.
The project reinforces officers' intervention skills specifically for when they address a fellow officer's behavior.
“The program has three pillars, which promote safe interactions and police accountability: reducing mistakes, preventing misconduct and promoting officer health and wellness,” Venuti said. “Officers should feel prepared to step in when peers are not handling an interaction properly. They should also learn how to spot if a fellow officer is having personal or mental health challenges — emotions from which can carry into the workplace.”
David Kelly, a patrol officer and one of two ABLE instructors for VCU Police, said the pillars are intertwined.
“Starting with promoting health and wellness: If you promote those [internally], you'll have officers who are well-rounded in their mental and physical health,” Kelly said. “There's a lower chance of having misconduct and, in turn, reduced mistakes. Alternatively, if officers reduce mistakes, that will lead to a reduction in misconduct and a reduction in the community's criticism of the department — factors that promote health and wellness of the officers.”
Kelly said intervention does not require specific tactics, but rather reinforces to officers that they have to do something; knowing there's a need to intervene, deciding to intervene then coming up with an action.
By state law, VCU Police officers have a duty to intervene when another officer is unlawfully using force against a person.
“If I notice one of my peers — who is usually sharp and ready to go — starts showing up to work disheveled, stops bringing equipment in for work, starts showing up late, that might be a good time to step in and say, ‘Hey is there something bothering you?' If I don't, their behavior could lead to mistakes and misconduct,” said Kelly.
Led by Olds, the department also offers confidential peer support. The peer-to-peer resource helps officers get support for themselves, and is used as part of debriefings following major incidents.
Kelly said VCU Police plans to train all officers in ABLE by the start of VCU's fall 2021 semester.
“Following the three pillars strengthens the bond with the community and reinforces community trust when police are needed during someone's worst times,” he said.