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Originally published Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Invest in training for police to better respond to people in crisis

The Washington Legislature should appropriate money for training police officers to spot people in crisis and help them. The investment will help avoid tragedies such as the 2010 death of Doug Ostling of Bainbridge Island.

Times editorial page editor

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I sat in an emergency room on Thanksgiving morning 2011 with my son. I was exhausted and trying not to roll my eyes.

My then-14-year-old son, my husband and I had just been through a very harrowing 15 hours. Our sweet, gentle, ever-happy boy — who has autism — fell apart emotionally.

We found ourselves having to physically restrain him from running out into the frosty night and down the road in his bare feet. There was no violence, just a young man’s strength fueled by his despair and inability to articulate his pain. All seven of us in the house were in tears or close to it.

The emergency-room doctor was sensitive to my son’s anxiety. After I told her it took two adults to restrain him, she said, well you could always call 911 if you needed help.

Yeah, right.

Calling 911 would not be among the first 10 options I would consider if Kevin’s anxiety spun out of control again. I notice every news report of misunderstandings between police and people in crisis that result in tragedy, whether they have intellectual disabilities, mental illness or otherwise atypical behavior.

The 2010 shooting death of Doug Ostling on Bainbridge Island is one example that makes the case that police need more training to recognize when people are in crisis.

The Washington Legislature is weighing a request from former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, now-executive director for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, for money to provide training for recruits at the state police academy and for 10,000 officers on the job across the state.

A legislative conference committee is expected to settle the differences between the Senate budget’s $330,000 for the 2013-15 biennium, and the House budget, which has none.

That budget line is a fraction of the $1 million a federal jury awarded to Ostling’s family after concluding the city of Bainbridge Island and its police chief failed to provide adequate training to its officers.

Ostling was a troubled 43-year-old man living above his parents’ garage. According to a 2012 Seattle Times story, he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was suspected of having Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

For whatever reason, Ostling called 911 on Oct. 26, 2010, and made confusing statements. The dispatcher warned two officers the caller might be in a state of “excited delirium.” Later, one of the officers explained what he thought that meant: “Where a person was — I believe it’s attracted to a — shiny objects.”

The father answered the door to the officers and led them to check on his son. Bill Ostling complied with a request for the key to the locked door. Minutes later, his son was shot and ultimately bled to death.

It’s chilling to think what it must have been like to be in the Ostlings’ shoes. To hand over the key, confident of a reasonable outcome. To see the tragedy of ignorance and overzealousness unfold with deadly consequences.

Then I think about my son — and how he doesn’t always respond right away. How his anxiety-driven hand-flapping might seem intimidating now that he’s a broad-shouldered 16-year-old.

On most days, he is a happy, charismatic boy who is acquainted with more of our neighbors than we are. We know when he needs to retreat and when he needs to be pushed. Still even we miscalculate on occasion.

That Thanksgiving incident, we surmised later, was the combination of a medication change, a new rigorous academic program and the happy excitement of a visit by his beloved brother-in-law. Too, too much.

That’s why I want police to get more training to recognize people in crisis. After undergoing such training, Metro Transit Deputy Joe Winter encountered an intoxicated, suicidal man on the bus and instead of hauling him to detox right away and walking, he asked some questions.

Yes, the man eventually went off to detox, but Winters called a crisis line at the scene so someone could meet with the man when he sobered up.

Training helps officers recognize when something beyond simple lawbreaking is in play. Rahr wants officers to have tools to help people in crisis avoid becoming victims themselves. And it can give officers the presence of mind to pause, when possible, and get a better sense of the circumstances.

“You can slow things down and keep everybody safe,” Winters said.

A worthy investment of scarce state funds.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is kriley@seattletimes.com On Twitter@k8riley

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