Less than two weeks after the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office graduated its 50th and most recent Crisis Intervention Training class, the program proved instrumental in de-escalating a recent hostage situation at a Sterling residence.
On April 26, CIT-certified deputies spent two hours speaking with 21-year-old Geraldo E. Martinez, eventually convincing him to drop the large butcher knife with which he was armed and to submit to arrest — all while other deputies helped six hostages escape from the other side of the home.
“Those are the scenarios that, as a trainer, just bring you pride, knowing that what we are teaching our deputies makes a difference in the community,” Sgt. Jamie Holben, a CIT trainer with the LCSO, told the Times-Mirror.
The Loudoun Sheriff’s Office launched the CIT program in 2012 in partnership with Loudoun County Mental Health, Substance Abuse & Developmental Health Services (MHSADS). It has since trained more than 700 people in responding to mental health crises.
All LCSO deputies — including those in the Loudoun County Courthouse, the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center and those who work as School Resource Officers — are required to receive CIT training within two years of joining the agency.
According to Sheriff Mike Chapman (R), the program is a five-day, 40-hour course in which participants undergo role-playing scenarios and other exercises.
“The whole idea is focused around de-escalation and being sensitive to a crisis somebody may be in,” Chapman said.
Among the activities provided during the program is an exercise in which trainees put on a pair of headphones and hear various voices speaking in a manner to make them agitated and to simulate a mental health crisis.
Chapman said this exercise is just one of the ways the CIT program seeks to increase trainees’ empathy for people going through a mental health crisis.
Two years ago, the LCSO partnered once again with MHSADS as well as the Arc of Loudoun and other mental health-focused organizations to offer an advanced version of the course.
Representatives from these organizations speak to participants to help increase understanding of how to best handle people with certain disabilities, including autism, Asperger syndrome or dementia.
“We want to make sure that we’re sensitive to what may be causing that, not just assume that somebody is being defiant or resisting, but may be somebody that has a mental health issue or mental disability that might prevent them from actually understanding the commands that we’re giving them,” Chapman said.
By forging a sense of empathy between deputies and citizens in potentially volatile situations, the CIT program has resulted in a dramatic decrease in deputies’ use of force when taking subjects into custody, Chapman said.
He said TASERs were used 44 times during arrests in the year of the CIT program’s inception; now, the agency averages four or fewer TASER discharges each year.
“Not 100 percent of the time can you de-escalate a situation, but you certainly can in the majority of situations, and I think that’s reflected in our use of force,” the sheriff said.
It was the empathetic aspect of the training that taught Lt. Milton Castelle to prepare for a potential mental health crisis as he responded to the hostage situation in Sterling last week.
“CIT makes you start thinking that already: ‘Okay, this could be something involving a mental health crisis. I need to get my mind right beforehand,’” he said.
After arriving at the scene and establishing instant command, Castelle and his fellow responders deduced that Martinez was undergoing such an episode and that he only spoke Spanish.
“We realized that, ‘You know what, we have time, we are all trained in crisis intervention. Let’s slow down and speak to this man in his own language with crisis-intervention [tactics],’” Castelle recalled.
He summoned to the scene a Spanish-speaking deputy who he said “effectively, efficiently talk[ed] this gentleman down,” while additional deputies utilized a neighbor’s ladder to remove the hostages — including children — through a window.
After two hours, the Spanish-speaking deputy persuaded Martinez to let go of his weapon and submit to being put in handcuffs “with no kind of aggression,” per Castelle.
“He was very emotional but he was also thanking the Spanish-speaking deputy for talking to him the way he did,” Castelle said.
Castelle added that the empathy and communication skills CIT has taught him have not only “tremendously helped my career” but also carried into his everyday conversations with friends, family members or colleagues who may be struggling emotionally.
Cincinnati, Ohio-based human resources professional Melissa Anderson found the training equally beneficial, despite not working in law enforcement.
Anderson, who works for financial technology company FIS Global, is one of a limited number of civilians to have undergone CIT training with the LCSO.
She said she and her team sought help a few years ago when employees started approaching them and expressing thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
“Because technology is constantly changing, we are having to pivot and change and adapt very quickly, and oftentimes that can be a lot for people, and that’s on top of what they’re dealing with in their personal lives,” Anderson said.
She said that she and many of her colleagues had never experienced such tense interactions before, leading them to feel “afraid of saying the wrong thing.”
“We might have an incident where an employee would send a picture to their manager, a picture with a gun and bullets on a bed, and say, ‘I don’t think it’s worth it anymore.’ What do you do in that moment?” she said.
Anderson was directed to the LCSO’s CIT program by Don Park, a coworker who formerly worked for the LCSO and retired in 2017, according to the agency’s Facebook page.
She and a few others flew to Loudoun for the full, 40-hour training and were the only trainees in that session not affiliated with law enforcement or fire and rescue — though they hardly felt alienated.
“We really immersed ourselves,” Anderson said. “They treated us as if we were one of them, which was amazing.”
She described the training as “very intense,” saying the role-playing scenarios were “so intense you actually think the situation is real.”
“[The trainers] do not come out of [their] roles when they are role-playing, you’re sweating and your pulse is beating pretty heavily,” she said. “You’re in front of a group of people and you want to get it right.”
Still, despite the program’s rigorous nature, Anderson called it “probably the best training I’ve ever attended,” saying it equipped her to not only respond to work-based mental health crises but also situations in her personal life and her community.
“I left feeling more confident that we all had these innate skills and abilities within us; it’s trusting ourselves to be human in the moment and have empathy for that person and come from a place of non-judgment,” she said.
One of her most valuable takeaways was the importance of listening to someone in crisis rather than just going straight into problem-solving mode.
“Oftentimes when we have a problem, we share it with a friend or a family member, what’s the first thing they do? They try to solve the problem, and that’s not always what we’re really looking for,” she said.
She continued, “Sometimes we’re just looking for someone to listen and maybe guide them and kind of direct them ... but I think we have to stop trying to solve everyone’s problems, especially since I’m not a counselor, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a physician.”
From a law-enforcement perspective, Castelle said the increased listening and empathy skills that are earned through CIT not only humanize a person going through a mental health crisis, but also “humaniz[e] the badge.”
“Law enforcement officers go through anxiety, we go through different things as well, and the CIT program helps us to realize the things that are going on with us, but also we can talk to somebody and humanize that person in the sense of, ‘You’re going through … a mental trauma in your life. It’s not your fault, and we are here to help,’” Castelle said.
He continued, “It’s a wonderful thing when we’re teaching law enforcement how to police more efficiently and effectively, to help the people we serve.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that the LCSO and Loudoun County Mental Health, Substance Abuse & Developmental Health Services have partnered since the beginning of the CIT program in 2012. The partnership did not begin in 2019 with the advanced CIT program, as previously written.