SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — The Sioux Falls Police Department has incorporated theatrics into training officers on how to respond to mental health emergencies. Volunteer actors portrayed people in crisis to help first-responders learn more ways to de-escalate a tense situation.
Officers from across South Dakota are in Sioux Falls this week for 40-hours of training to get their crisis intervention certification. Thursday’s class involved mock emergencies where officers had to rely on their training to bring about a peaceful, and safe, resolution.
The dialogue is intense.
“Are you feeling like killing yourself, Susie?”
Sioux Falls police officer Austin VanDiepen is talking with Susie Berger, who’s portraying a mother of two going through a mental health crisis as she holds a knife, which is actually a plastic prop, to her throat.
“There’s nothing left for me. I can’t do anything. I lost my job. I can’t pay my bills. I can’t take care of my kids, my kids are everything,” Berger said.
Berger works as a city services technician for the police department. Local theater students also act in these simulated emergencies.
“It’s pretty much all improv. It’ll change. The one before was different than this one and this one’s going to be different from the one I do next,” Berger said.
Berger eventually sets down the knife following some reassuring words from VanDiepen.
“I know that you’re feeling very helpless and I’m sorry for that. But I can assure you that I don’t want you to hurt yourself,” VanDiepen said.
After each scenario, the officer will sit down with a mental health expert and another officer who’s been through the training to critique their interactions with the person going through the mental health crisis.
“Where they say what you’ve done good, what you did bad, what could be worked on and then we shake hands with the college kids,” South Dakota Penitentiary corrections officer Ben Ullom said.
The actors stay in character throughout, providing more insight for officers in how a fictionalized emergency could play out in real life.
Officers come as far away as the Black Hills for the training. Berger’s been volunteering for this training for several years.
If you, or someone you know, is having thoughts of suicide or a mental health crisis, you can call 988 for help.