Hearing Voices: Training for Tough Situations

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Last year, Virginia Beach police responded to more than 4,000 calls that involved someone in crisis. That’s up from the year before.

The department, along with many across Hampton Roads, are working to train more officers to be better equipped to respond the varying situations presented by someone in crisis.

“Sometimes when we’re on the street we’re a little fast paced,” said Detective Chris Lazar, a crisis intervention training officer. “Kind of take a step back, slow down. Maybe they’re hearing voices. Maybe they’re going through a different psychotic episode and maybe we need to take a different route.”

This week, about two dozen officers are participating in a week-long crisis intervention training program.

10 On Your Side was at the training Monday.

One of the most powerful things the officers learn is what it’s like to hear voices.

They spend one hour listening a pre-programmed recording is supposed to give officers a glimpse inside the mind of someone who hears auditory hallucinations. Officers must listen to the recording as they try to complete simple tasks.

The audio the officers hear was created by a psychologist, who has schizophrenia herself.

The goal is to teach empathy, and give them a better understanding of what might be going on inside the mind of someone in crisis.

The officers start to hear whispers that get louder and more negative as time goes on. Completing the tasks while listening to the loud and often confusing voices proved challenging.

“It increased my heart rate, I lost focus. It made me very agitated,” said Officer John Hlebinksi. “I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t read, couldn’t write. I was a mess.

Even the smallest distractions become insurmountable.

“It’s very difficult,” one officer said. “You have to concentrate and try to retain, but you have those things talking back to you and it’s like, ‘Okay what did I just read? And what did they just say?'”

So far, about 25 percent of the police force has completed the training.

“We want to make sure the officers know that it’s okay. They can ask the citizens if they’re hearing voices or to talk with an elevated voice because it may be hard for them to hear. It may be difficult for them to focus.”

An officer’s job isn’t done once he or she de-escalates the situation. If needed, they are responsible for transporting a person to a hospital with an open bed, and that can mean driving as far away as Roanoke, and staying with that person until they are finally admitted.

On rare occasions, one call can end up lasting 20 hours, which is why this training is so important.

“The biggest thing is empathy. The more tools, the more ways we can talk people into doing what’s going to help them and help us, that’s our goal.”

There’s more to the training than this one exercise. Officers learn about many mental health issues, then spend the last half of the week-long training session in lifelike scenarios, putting their training to the test.