Mentally ill gain new allies in Luzerne County


March 22, 2013

LUZERNE — After five years of planning, the inaugural class of 16 police officers and other first-responders from the Luzerne and Wyoming County Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, were certified to deal with emergency situations involving the mentally ill.

The CIT is a partnership of law enforcement, mental health providers, friends, advocates and consumers who represent a new approach to dealing with mentally ill individuals who come to the attention of law enforcement.

The graduation ceremony was held Friday at Trans-Med Corporate Offices in Luzerne.

“Instead of confronting and arresting a person who shows signs of emotional distress, CIT members are trained to deal with the situation and direct the person into treatment instead of jail,” according to CIT literature.

Shawn Conti, a Hazleton City patrolman, said the program will hold two classes per year with a ceiling of 20 people per class. It's crucial that municipalities participate in the program, he said. “Law enforcement needs to take a pro-active approach to crisis intervention,” Conti said. “The CIT program will give officers the tools and training necessary to increase favorable outcomes when dealing with people with mental illness.”

Patrick Roman, a Luzerne County adult probation field officer, said he deals with people on probation or parole on a daily basis. Roman, 31 of Pittston, is one of the CIT's first graduates.

“This training gives us invaluable information on how to deal with people with mental illness or who are drug or alcohol dependent,” Roman said.

Conti, 42, said first-responders often arrive on the scene and are confronted with a person with mental issues. Police sometimes have to make a split-second decision on how to diffuse a situation, he said, and the CIT training will help them make the correct decision.

“True courage is not knowing when to take a life, but when to save one,” Conti said.

Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis was on hand to present certificates to the graduates and to thank them for their participation.

“You are the first responders who show up when a mental patient is in need,” she said. “You have become advocates for those suffering from mental illness. You have been trained how to safely calm a situation and to get the person safely removed for treatment.”

Kelly Petherick, of Community Counseling Services, said her agency and the other partners — Officer Charles Casey, Wilkes-Barre Police; Luzerne Police Chief Patti O'Donnell; Paul J. Radzavicz, NAMI/PA Luzerne/Wyoming County; Steve Barnic, Northeast Counseling Services; Conti; Jeff Drake, Northeast Counseling Services; Sgt. Joseph Matchko, Luzerne County Correctional Facility; and Mike Ankenbrand, Luzerne County 911 — have been working toward this day for five years. Finding the funding, support and interest has been difficult, but now the program is up and running, she said.

“The CIT program provides another tool to manage and help people with mental illnesses and disorders,” Petherick said.

The CIT model was developed in Memphis, Tenn., and represents a major step forward in acknowledging that mental illness is a disease, and that arrest is not always an appropriate response to someone whose behavior is directly related to symptoms of their disease, Petherick said.

Area organizers attended a seminar at the Scranton City CIT a year ago and Luzerne County Judge William Amesbury was a featured speaker.

“The introduction of CIT in Luzerne County is a goal that needs to get done,” Amesbury said at the seminar. Amesbury this week addressed the first class at Trans-Med.

The CIT program is funded through donations from the community, both business and private. Petherick estimated it costs about $400 per student. All speakers and members of the CIT team volunteer their time for the 40-hour course, she said. Jim Davis of MH/MR of Luzerne County, said each police department gave its officers time to attend the training.

“Everything was donated,” Davis said. “It was a coordinated effort with donations by everyone involved.”

Over the past decade, said Petherick, traditional mental health institutions have shut down in favor of community placements. Special strategies are needed when dealing with a person with a mental illness in a crisis situation, she said.