New BCSO team shows empathy toward people struggling with mental health

Published 10:17 am Monday, August 14, 2023

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A sheriff’s deputy kicks down a door to get inside a residence where a person barricaded themselves. The scene is loud, intense and adrenaline is running high. The person, struggling with their mental health, becomes more stressed and a greater risk to their safety and deputies’ safety. 

At one time, scenes like this were a common practice among law enforcement agencies; however, a revised program aims to de-escalate specific situations before they become that stressful. This new approach is slow, steady and brings a level of empathy to scenes where mental health is a primary consideration. 

It is called the Sheriff’s Response Team also known as SRT. This is a team of eight deputies who are deployed onto high-risk, critical scenes where the aim is to have an effective and controlled response through specialized training, equipment and tactics, as described by the King, North Carolina Police Department. For SRTs, the use of force only becomes necessary when there is an immediate danger or threat to safety.

SRT responds to scenes that may involve barricaded subjects, high-risk search warrants, hostage-taking situations, suicidal subjects, surveillance operations and finding missing children and elderly citizens who may have cognitive impairments. 

When they arrive at these scenes they want to lessen a person’s emotional distress which is also called de-escalating. 

To de-escalate a situation, deputies will use communication tactics to try to calm a person. This can look like maintaining awareness of a person’s environment, behavior and the tone of voice. It can also look like asking a person why they feel upset then repeating what was said back to them to make sure they feel understood. 

“What we want is a peaceful resolution to any of this. No one wants to have to use force or anyone get hurt. So, being able to have that option, that de-escalation technique is the best outcome,” Captain Kasey Neal with Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said. 

According to Neal, the sheriff’s office has not had a specialized team for about a decade. During that time, the narcotics unit as well as criminal investigators and patrol deputies responded to what are now SRT calls.  

The Beaufort County SRT team has been deployed a handful times – the most recent being July 30. 

At approximately 2:30 a.m., two hours after a call for law enforcement had been made to a Chocowinity residence, the SRT team arrived at a scene where a father barricaded himself inside with his five-month-old infant after forcibly removing the mother. He would not allow anyone inside the residence, according to a press release from the sheriff’s office. 

According to Neal, the father neither threatened to hurt his child nor were there “red flags” to indicate he would harm his child; therefore, there was no urgency to remove the father from the residence which is why it took five hours.  

“Deputies were able to negotiate a peaceful outcome to the situation allowing the mother to be reunited with her child,” according to the press release. 

“With the SRT that night of no one getting injured was a direct result of the quick response from the patrol deputies,” Neal said. 

Remaining calm and collected prevents a person from feeling as if they need to defend themself. “We don’t want to go into a house and cause them to defend themself or hurt somebody in the house when we have them talking and keeping things calm that way,” Neal said. 

Neal joined a similar Tactical Resource Team in 2008 under former Beaufort County Sheriff Alan George. Though tactics have mostly stayed the same for situations where subjects of a scene are struggling with their mental health, “we’re less apt to kick in the door, now.” 

“There is way more of an understanding now,” Neal said when he spoke about mental health. “When you have the information, knowing that person you’re dealing with may not be able to make rational decisions. Taking that into account really does make you slow things down a little bit and think of better options.” 

Therapists will sometimes be on the scene with deputies to provide additional assistance, Neal said. Plus, patrol deputies receive Critical Intervention Training where they too know how to de-escalate a situation. They can respond and resolve minor situations quicker than the SRT.