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Jennifer Lavoie

Improving police interactions with people in mental health crisis

Mental health crisis calls made to 911 police dispatches across the country have been increasing in recent decades. Certainly, in the last year of the pandemic, there has been a meteoric rise in mental health calls made to police services – indeed, the Toronto Police Service alone received over 45,000 such calls in the last 12 months. Complicating this volume of service is that frontline officers in Ontario do not receive standardized training to manage these complex situations that may, at times, involve tangible safety considerations. Tragically, several recent high-profile cases ending in the death of citizens in crisis have placed these police interactions in the media spotlight.  Mounting public calls for change join a chorus of inquest recommendations to identify safer, evidence-informed alternatives to current police practices.

Wilfrid Laurier University researcher, Dr. Jennifer Lavoie (Depts. of Criminology and Psychology) has worked to address to this call, undertaking a series innovative and impactful studies with partners from Ryerson University and University of Victoria. Dr. Lavoie and her team have been conducting research to build and test scenario-based training programs designed to improve officer skills in de-escalation and communication, while emphasizing relational policing techniques.

Dr. Lavoie is a co-investigator on a four-year project that received funding ($310, 950) from a SSHRC Insight Grant that builds on her previous SSHRC-funded ($56,253) ethnographic research on police encounters with people in mental health crisis where valuable field observations were made during police ride-alongs. The project, entitled, Scenario Training to Improve Interactions between Police and Individuals in Mental Crisis: Impacts and Efficacy led to the development and evaluation of an innovative form of problem-based scenario training that focuses on the learning and rehearsal of de-escalation and communication techniques during high-fidelity crisis simulations. Working with a diverse group of community stakeholders, including people with lived experience of mental illness, mental health professionals, advocates, and police instructors, Dr. Lavoie’s team designed authentic, high-intensity scenarios featuring a range of mental health crises portrayed by professional actors. This experiential learning model takes constables through a spectrum of immersive learning sessions, and allows trainees to practice alternative responses based on targeted feedback from Subject Matter Experts.

The research team has been testing the efficacy of this 40-hour scenario-based training program at a participating police service in Southern Ontario (N=71). Using a mixed-methods approach and a pre-post design, the evaluation examines behavioral, cognitive, and attitudinal changes among trainees. As part of this evaluation, Dr. Lavoie and team developed an evaluation framework, called DePICTTM (De-escalating Persons in Crisis Competencies Tool). The first of its kind, this standardized tool is an evidence-informed 14-item observer-rater checklist designed to assess a police trainees’ competencies in de-escalation and mental health crisis intervention. The DePICTTM  is used to guide and assess training outcomes in program evaluation, and has application in the police service for use by instructors in trainee debriefs. A defining feature of the research study methodology is using the DePICTTM  checklist to assess trainees participating in a circuit of four brief realistic scenarios that test their abilities to engage in effective responses and ethical decision-making while under stress. To date, the team’s findings suggest that this innovative scenario-based training program resulted in significant increases in the use of de-escalation and enhanced communication strategies in simulations, increases in police officer confidence and empathy, and reductions in bias towards people with serious mental illness.

Recently, Dr. Lavoie led the completion of a research contract ($300,000) to construct a blended-learning scenario-based training model based on insights from her SSHRC research. This new comprehensive program was again supported by contributions from a diverse stakeholder group and Subject Matter Experts to harness best practices. A key development was the infusion of Cultural Safety training throughout the program to enhance police mental health crisis response in racialized communities. Dr. Lavoie and her research partners continue to advance applied research to work towards improving the quality of police interactions with citizens in mental health crisis in Ontario.

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