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Becoming the Badge: Crisis Intervention

This week on Becoming the Badge El Paso Police recruits are pushing themselves for their next physical test. But they’re also exercising their mind, as they learn how to handle difficult situations and mental illness.

This week on Becoming the Badge El Paso Police recruits are pushing themselves for their next physical test. But they’re also exercising their mind, as they learn how to handle difficult situations and mental illness.

The 66 police recruits are training to music, with the goal of keeping their mind in tune, to take commands while they’re distracted.

At the same time, some of the female recruits, including Sarah Tew, are working on strengthening their grip, they have their second physical training test in just a few days.

Their grip strength will have to total 160 pounds.

“You're having to grab people, hold on to individuals with a lot of strength,” said training instructor Sgt. Jeremy Ontiveros.

Aside from physical training, this week is also mentally strenuous, as recruits receive state mandated crisis intervention training.

The training is led by civilian counselors and trained hostage negotiators, members of the departments Crisis Management Team.

“We are the ones that respond to the suicidal subjects, barricaded subjects, the people who are in crisis,” said training instructor and CMT member, officer Joe Lopez.

Academy instructors also have added to the state requirements by including a full day of scenario based training on mental health issue that officers encounter in the field.

“These are real scenarios that we've been through,” Lopez said.

The goal is to give the patrol officers to tools to recognize a person in crisis and de-escalate.

“They are the first ones on the scenes. They might end up doing the negotiations with these individuals because they build a rapport,” said Lopez.

At a time when it’s so easy to send an email or a text and stay behind a screen this training forces recruits back to the basics of communicationtalking.

“Being able to effectively communicate with someone could take them out of crisis and potentially save their life,” Lopez said.

Part of the scenario training includes sitting back to back with a faux suicidal subject.

“We did scenarios that really blew my mind,” said recruit Sergio Soto.

“It gets emotional it gets intense the instructors know what they’re doing,” recruit Jose Lucero said.

Soto has personal experience with mental illness, having recently lost some friends to suicide.

“So when that happen that kind of was like, damn. It hit me. I didn’t know how to react I still don’t to this day,” Soto said.

It’s a perspective he can carry with him into the field.

“No matter what I say, it’s their choice... It’s entirely up to them,” Soto said.

“You’re never going to drive someone to suicide,” said Lopez

“This is something I’m not a stranger to. My past company commander took his life. It hit me pretty tough,” said recruit Anthony Greer.

Having served as a military police officer, company commander Damian George has prior experience.

“I’ve dealt with suicidal subjects on numerous occasions and it’s challenging. It really is. You’re dealing with someone who feels they have nothing to live for,” said George.

For 26-year-old recruit Samuel Quattelbaum, being able to de-escalate situations when he was in the security forces of the Air Force is why he wanted to become a police officer to begin with.

“I just knew I should do law enforcement,” said Quattelbaum. “That’s where I feel comfortable, is handling people talking to them.”

But he also lost a friend to suicide

“One day she had decided on duty to go in the stairwell and commit suicide. That was a really rough day,” he said.

Recruits are also getting hands-on training to understand what a person suffering from a mental illness might be going through, like schizophrenia.

“Officer Lopez was on one side, the counselor was on the other and they were whispering things in my ear as officer Madrid was asking me questions-- my name phone number and address-- I’m hearing the voices,” said Greer as he described one of the exercises.

Of course, verbal de-escalation is just one option for an officer on a scene.

“We will never train a police officer to ignore a safety issue to try and verbally de-escalate something, that’s just not what we are going to do,” said Lopez. “But you look for the opportunities within the situation. We don’t need these guys to be diagnosing people.”

But they want officers to be able to recognize signs and symptoms.

“As a law enforcement community we recognize we can’t just ignore that we come across people with mental health issues and we can’t just treat them the same,” said Lopez.

They're also learning, how to process those emotions when things don’t go well.

“We’ve had unsuccessful negotiations. We’ve had people kill themselves on the phone (or) in front of us ,” said Lopez. “If you feel like you need to get psychological help there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not weak.”

Pushing past their physical weaknesses on the El Paso High track Friday morning, the recruits are knocking out their second PT test.

Now, as they're blowing past the standards, they're expected to improve every test.

Recruit Vanessa Bermudez has just come back from a leg injury.

“A lot of obstacles have been thrown at me but I’m taking them one at a time,” she said.

But during the mile run she felt her knee buckle”and I knew it was bad.”

“I had to keep pushing I’m already halfway there,” Bermudez said.

Now she's worried about what the impact will be.

“It was hard it was a hard hit today,” she said

For some of the female recruits, including Tew, the grip test is still a struggle.

“(I’m) like five points away from passing,” said Tew.

That means a failure for the entire test, but she's focused on the progress she’s made.

“If I feel like I’m accepted here, I push myself to grow and grow,” she said.

At the end of a grueling week, recruits are looking forward to a three-day weekend, one week closer to their goal.

“Once they put that badge on, I’m training everybody else for you. To keep you safe, to make sure those people have your back,” said Lopez.

Next week recruits practice rushing into emergency situations snd they must figure out how to get victims and other officers to safety.

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