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Small-town forces use online training to guide front-line officers

The way Canadian police respond to an increasing number of interactions with the mentally ill can't be the same across the country, according to a psychologist who has studied police training.

Shortages in the health care system have left officers to answer many crisis calls, not just in cities but in rural areas as well. Research conducted in the small Ontario city of Belleville, population 50,000, shows that each front-line officer attends about 40 such calls a year.

Dorothy Cotton, who has reviewed training nationally with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, says small towns and remote communities probably can't – and shouldn't – respond to an increase in calls the same way. For example, it may work for a city's police force to partner with its hospital's mental health workers to form an official joint response team, she said. But in a small community, there probably wouldn't be enough calls to warrant having a formal team.

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"Communities are very different. They're different in terms of population density, in terms of geographical region, in terms of the amount and nature of mental health services, in terms of the history of the problem," said Ms. Cotton.

Because of those factors, she argues there is no such thing as a "best" model for response. But in terms of training, smaller and remote places are using online programs to bolster the in-person training police forces are able to deliver.

The Durham Regional Police Service, which responds to Ontario communities including Port Perry and Bowmanville, has partnered with a local university, college and health facilities to create online simulation training ( with a funding grant. It's worked well enough that the Ontario Provincial Police have started using it as well.

There are four videos that show different stages of a crisis, including a young man who is threatening suicide and has a knife. People taking the training make choices at various stages about how to approach the person and the outcome varies accordingly.

It makes police consider: "Do you focus on the knife? Do you focus on the person?" Durham Detective Sergeant Phil Lillie said.

The scenario with the knife became controversial because some people outside of policing questioned whether reaching for a weapon was appropriate if someone was in crisis, even if they have a knife. But Det. Sgt. Lillie said there's a positive side to the controversy.

"We've got people talking about this, whereas in the past nobody would talk about it," he said.

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The training was made mandatory for front-line officers in 2008, on top of basic de-escalation and other mental illness training.

On Prince Edward Island, the Atlantic Police Academy is moving away from using only in-class and scenario-based learning.

Inspector Leslie Condon is bringing in technology from the U.S. that helps cadets understand what it's like to be in a psychiatric crisis that involves hearing voices. The technology is basically headphones and audio that's been designed by mental health workers and police.

Insp. Condon said improving many situations comes down to simple steps like using different communications skills and remaining patient, rather than trying to take control. "Maybe some incidents wouldn't happen if we try to understand what was happening before."

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