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Anne Arundel police crisis response team named best ‘on the planet’

Lt. Steven Thomas and Jen Corbin help people away from the scene of a homicide and barricade in Glen Burnie in April 2019. Their Crisis Intervention Team has been named the International Crisis Intervention Team of the Year.
Lt. Steven Thomas and Jen Corbin help people away from the scene of a homicide and barricade in Glen Burnie in April 2019. Their Crisis Intervention Team has been named the International Crisis Intervention Team of the Year. (Alex Mann)

An Anne Arundel County police unit which specializes in the response to people experiencing mental health crises has been recognized as the International Crisis Intervention Team of the Year, the department’s police chief announced Monday.

The award from Crisis Intervention Team International recognized the county’s group as “the best crisis intervention, mobile crisis team, on the planet,” Police Chief Timothy Altomare said at a ceremony outside police headquarters in Millersville. The news was kept as a surprise from the team.

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With the blazing sun baking down on unsuspecting officers and clinicians, each member of the team was presented with citations of excellence from Altomare and County Executive Steuart Pittman, who spoke proudly of the unit he described as “one of the greatest things in Anne Arundel County government.”

The Crisis Intervention Team was inaugurated in 2014 under former chief Kevin Davis. Its members collaborate with the county Mental Health Agency to help people in crisis to divert them from the criminal justice system. One of the unit’s officers described his job, after winning International Crisis Officer of the Year in 2018, as treating the cause of crisis rather than the symptoms.

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Whenever a child is charged with a crime and police believe it happened because of a mental health issue, crisis intervention takes over and connects the youth with community health services, according to police. They coordinate these efforts with county schools, prosecutors and public defenders.

And when an adult is charged with a crime, emergency petitioned and committed to a hospital, crisis intervention escorts them through the criminal justice system and ensures they have a recovery plan before they are released from custody, the department says.

Lt. Steve Thomas, coordinator of the police element of the unit, said in an April interview with The Capital that it deals in routine behavioral health issues, like drug addiction or depression, but also tragedies that “shock your conscience” like child suicides and deadly barricades. The specially-trained police officers are dispatched along with a mental health professional from the county agency.

They ride together to the scene donning blue collared shirts to console family members and check on officers who were on the front lines that day, among a number of responsibilities.

At the end of June, crisis intervention team members and police negotiators talked an armed man into surrendering uninjured and coming out of the Odenton apartment where he barricaded himself, according to police.

“The negotiators trusted our clinician partners enough to actually put the clinician into the negotiation,” Altomare recalled in a telephone interview after the conference. “The clinician was literally negotiating for us. We never do that… the clinician actually talked the person out of the house.”

“You here about de-escalation everyday… this is the SWAT team for de-escalation in Anne Arundel County,” Altomare added.

The incident recalled a deadlier dilemma about a year before, when police said a Glen Burnie man fired a shotgun into the chest of a neighbor before barricading himself in his apartment.

Police locked down the complex, evacuating a number of residents, as negotiators navigated the barricade. Thomas and Jen Corbin, who leads the mental health professional side of the team, guided families to safety. Special Operations Response Team officers blasted through a wall to arrest him.

But the work wasn’t done for the crisis team, members of which returned months later as the victim’s family packed up his apartment.

Scores of crisis response team members were also there on June 28, 2018, when a gunman with a grudge murdered five Capital Gazette employees after shooting his way into the Annapolis newsroom.

Pittman pointed out another one of the team’s responsibilities: training rank and file officers on mental health first aid, a technique by which officers can recognize the signs of mental illness and substance abuse while they’re out patrolling and interacting with people.

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But they’ve also played an important role in responding the opioid epidemic. Crisis response officers often stay in touch with families after police officers respond to a drug overdose and resuscitate a loved one.

When someone struggling with substance abuse requests assistance at one of the county’s Safe Stations, the crisis intervention team works with the court system to have any warrants recalled or trials postponed until the person completes addiction treatment, at which point a crisis intervention member accompanies the person to court to testify about their recovery progress, according to police.

Altomare told The Capital the team’s members are known to show up at a patient’s house when “when something’s going off track " or just calling to check in to “just to make sure a person stays healthy.”

Deputy Chief Bill Lowry recalled going to a meeting concerning a camp organized by the crisis team for county middle school students going through struggles at home. He said top brass left the meeting in tears.

During the 40-hour camp conducted yearly with clinical supervision, the police department says the children learn positive coping strategies and that the crisis intervention officers often become the kids “go to adults and social supports.”

“It just showed the crisis that (the youth) were in and the work that these team members put forth,” Lowry said. “At the beginning of the week they wouldn’t even talk to them by the end of the week they were on a first-name basis.”

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