Local actress, teacher helps police officers deal with crisis intervention
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
One of the biggest challenges law enforcement officials may face on any given day on the job is dealing with a person who is mentally ill or in emotional crisis.
In addition to the 40 hours of crisis intervention training they receive as recruits at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, nearly three-quarters of Las Cruces police officers have also received 44 hours of additional “reality-based training” thanks to a unique course offered by Monika Mojica, a Las Cruces actress who teaches acting and theatre at Doña Ana Community College. Las Cruces Police Chief Jaime Montoya said he hopes all of his officers will have received Mojica’s crisis intervention training (CIT) by the end of 2016.
Mojica, 44, employs local actors to role play as people in crisis for the practicum, which she offers as the final piece in a 44-hour training program for the Las Cruces Police Department (LCPD) and other law enforcement agencies in the state.
Mental illness “is a medical condition that affects one in three in some way,” Mojica said. The number of mentally ill people has grown because of population growth, the return of war veterans with traumatic brain injuries and increases in substance abuse and domestic violence, among other causes, she said. Mojica has dealt with mental illness in her own family for many years.
If a person suffering from mental illness is not taking prescribed medication, he or she could “have that moment” of crisis at any time and be confronted by a law enforcement officer.
Mojica’s goal is to help LCPD officers “walk in the shoes” of people in crisis and “make sure officers are trained to treat (the confrontation) like the medical situation it is.”
Mojica’s course is “about people in crisis, emotionally out of control,” said Police Chief Jaime Montoya. LCPD officers who have gone through the course have found it “a very valuable tool for them. They are better able to understand someone in crisis,” he said. The course gives his officers “different tools” to deal with people in crisis, including “how to talk to them, how to act around them,” the chief said.
The training also has given his officers more empathy and helped them learn to “de-escalate issues” in situations they “deal with every day on the job,” Montoya said.
Mojica provides officers with training in a variety of different scenarios, using actors playing the roles of war veterans, homeless persons and others in crisis. Each officer is taught to get on eye level with the person he or she is dealing with, how to stand in a non-threatening way and how to listen to that person.
“As an actor, I love this type of challenge,” said New Mexico State University Theatre Arts Department Assistant Professor Claudia Billings, 59. “I never know what’s going to happen when I open the ‘door.’ I try to challenge these folks to be better at their jobs and they do the same for me. All of the stereotypes I’ve ever had about law enforcement have been blown away. These people are kind, smart and always striving to be better at what they do,” Billings said.
“Where else can you act and save somebody’s life?” Mojica asked.
The training helps police officers recognize that sometimes the best way to deal with someone in crisis is not always to talk to them in a stern, authoritative manner, as traditional police training may emphasize.
Officers recognize the “need to change the way we do things,” Chief Montoya said. They learn, for example, never to corner the person they are dealing with, and to “not buy into the mania of the situation,” Mojica said.
“Patience is paramount,” said Mojica, who has been providing the CIT course for the past five years.
Her goal for every situation: “Everyone goes home safely.”
“We’ve saved lives” through the training, she said. “People are alive because officers received this training. It’s sacred work and I’m proud to do it,” said Mojica, who holds CIT certification. She wrote the state-approved curriculum “for actors training to be reality-based professional actors,” according to her website, https://mobucreative. wordpress.com/.
Through the training, Mojica strives to shatter stereotypes and show everyone that mental illness is a medical condition. “Diabetes/depression; it’s the same thing,” she said. Her goal is to “shift the paradigm and look at (mental illness) for what it is: something misfiring in the brain.”
“One of our goals is to teach officers about crises and mental illness in order to improve their ability and confidence to predict and respond to abnormal behaviors,” according to an LCPD flyer about a recent crisis intervention certification class. Through class activities participants will gain an overall understanding that CIT is designed to be an added tool for law enforcement.”
Chief Montoya credited a number of officers who have helped Mojica set up and conduct the training program, including Bob McCord, Lt. Shane Briscoe and the LCPD’s current crisis intervention training officer, T.J. Camacho.
These officers have “stepped up because they care deeply and they have been passionate. They do a lot of good stuff and keep the department moving forward,” Montoya said.
“This sort of educational tool can be utilized in any setting including corporate, medical or law training,” Mojica said. “The stakes are particularly high for law enforcement but really anyone who works with people can benefit greatly from learning the lesson live, in real time,” she said.
For more information on reality- based scenario training, contact Mojica at 405-8405.
‘The stakes are particularly high for law enforcement but really anyone who works with people can benefit greatly from learning the lesson live, in real time.’