NORRISTOWN, Pa. — When a 6–foot–5, 270–pound man with a history of violence broke out of a mental health ward near Philadelphia and tried to withdraw money from a bank, a confrontation with police seemed likely.


But Lower Merion Township police officer Matthew Freind used his mental health training to calmly talk to the man and defuse the crisis.


“No force was necessary,” Freind said. “He thanked me. He said, ‘You’re the only person that’s ever truly listened to me.’ That was a situation where things could’ve gotten out of hand very quickly.”


Sometimes they do, especially if police aren’t trained how to respond to the severely mentally ill.


Mental health advocates say violent confrontations occur regularly between people with untreated mental illness and officers. They blame a mental health system whose funding has been severely slashed, thrusting police into the role of first responder.


State psychiatric hospitals began closing 50 years ago. As a result, people with serious mental illness often wind up homeless or cycle in and out of jail.


Mental health advocates say training can help police spot when someone is in crisis and adjust their tactics accordingly, potentially reducing injuries to officers and the mentally ill as well as the frequency of arrests.


At Montgomery County Emergency Service, a private psychiatric hospital outside Philadelphia, officers are taught that how they talk and even where they stand can make a big difference. Police learn they should try to make eye contact, speak calmly and listen.


A recent simulation showed police how hard following commands can be for someone who is hearing voices. Officers Edward Sarama and Robert McGuire pretended they had to talk a man with schizophrenia out of a chair — where he had sat for a day, covered in his own waste — and get him committed. The tenant was played by Officer Matt Dougherty, who literally heard voices as officers jabbered nonstop into his ears.


“We’re here to check up on you. Have you been in the chair for very long?” McGuire asked. “Try to focus on me, Mr. Dougherty.”


Added Sarama: “Matt, Matt, we’re here to help you, Matt.”


Dougherty was unable to respond, distracted by the voices.


“I never experienced anything like that before,” he said later. “To see it from the other side was eye-opening.”