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Q&A: Howard mental health liaison addresses training for police

Simone E. Engram is the Mental Health Community Liaison/CIT Coordinator for the Howard County Police Department. Hired in December, Engram's position was created as part of an initiative by Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to beef up how the county addresses mental health issues within the community. In this interview, Engram discusses her role within the department and how mental health pertains to police work.

Q: Describe some of your duties; what are your qualifications?

A: I have a Masters in community counseling and a Masters in forensic psychology. I am a Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor with a history of working in a residential setting with individuals with chronic mental illness, inmates suffering with addictions and persons found NCR (not criminally responsible).

I monitor daily reports for emergency petitions, suicide attempts and calls with a mental health component. I provide outreach to families and individuals with mental illnesses; connecting them to available resources within Howard County. I also coordinate and provide mental health training for HCPD. I, along with a CIT trained officer, am also available for presentations to area treatment providers (staff and clients) on safety, education and what to expect when police are called for situations with a mental health component.

Q: How important is understanding mental health to police work?

A: Police officers, along with other first responders, are called to a variety of situations often when people don't know what else to do. It is important that officers are equipped with the knowledge to best assess the situation and come up with the best plan of action. Having knowledge of not only mental illness but also developmental and intellectual disabilities provides officers with the necessary tools to foster a safe outcome for a person that may be in crisis, family or loved ones and the officers themselves.

Q: Have you seen other jurisdictions employing a similar approach? Is this becoming more prevalent because there is an increase in instances or an increase in understanding?

A: The idea of providing officers with increased knowledge surrounding mental illness is spreading not only throughout Maryland, but throughout the country. HCPD partners with Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center's Mobile Crisis Team (MCT) to respond to mental health calls. In addition HCPD uses the CIT model of training officers extensively in what to do when responding to a call with a mental health component. We encourage people to ask specifically if a CIT trained officer is available during their initial contact with dispatch.

Q: How closely are you working with the officers? Are you training them in what to do when confronted by a person who may have a mental illness?

A: While I work for Howard County Mental Health Authority, my position is embedded within the police department. Officers are able to contact me any time for questions they may have about mental illness, situations they think may need further outreach or for educational material.

All officers receive training on mental illness while in the academy. Training includes "In Our own Voice" presentations sponsored through NAMI of persons living with varying mental illnesses. In addition officers receive QPR (suicide prevention) certification through our partnership with Grassroots. Officers also have an annual mental health review training.

The CIT training previously mentioned is offered in addition to the training received during academy and annually. CIT is a 40-hour course that delves deeper into specific diagnoses, de-escalation techniques and available resources. This course is very hands on and includes site visits to local treatment providers. This course is offered not only for officers but also for our dispatchers because they are the first point of contact in many cases.

Q: What, in your mind, should an officer do when confronted by a person who may be suffering from a mental illness?

A: The major thing emphasized during all training is to slow down the situation as much as possible, listen and use your techniques to deescalate.

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