La Voz Latina - Su puente a la comunidad Hispana de Georgia y Carolina del sur

Savannah Latina honored for work as CIT instructor

  • Minna Betancourt. Foto por scmpd.org
  • Minna Betancourt. Foto por John Newton.

Working as a police officer today is harder than ever. The vastly increased potency of drugs and weaponry create a hazardous environment for law enforcement personnel and emergency medical responders alike. And thanks to increased public scrutiny of their interactions with the people they are sworn to protect and serve, stress levels have never been higher.
Add to these dangers the erratic and unpredictable behavior of a mentally ill suspect or someone under the influence of an unknown drug and you create a tripwire scenario where one false move or misjudged reaction can have lethal consequences.
That's why Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training is such an important tool in the police officer's intervention arsenal.
The CIT program teaches police officers how to interact with individuals experiencing mental illnesses, developmental disabilities, and addictive disease. With CIT training, officers learn how to identify these disorders and most-importantly, how to de-escalate conflict situations.
Last month, Minna Betancourt, a Savannah mental health and addiction counselor, was honored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for her work as a CIT trainer. Betancourt received the Exemplary Faculty Award, an honor given to the faculty member who consistently offers expertise to the CIT program through instruction and learning materials.
Betancourt, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, first moved to the U.S. in 1995, when she and her husband, Francisco, brought their three children to live in Miami, Florida. In Venezuela, her father and uncle worked in the government's foreign ministry office.
“I was the black sheep in my family because I was surrounded by wealth and privilege and I didn't want to raise my children in a society where they didn't understand the value of hard work,” she said. “My life in Human Services began when I started working with street kids in Caracas.”
In Miami, Betancourt began working as a volunteer advocate for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Then she became a guardian ad litem for children who were abused by drug-addicted parents or neglected by their caregivers.
She and her husband moved to Savannah in 2011 where their daughter, also named Minna, was living since she started at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Today, all three of their children (plus a granddaughter) live in Savannah.
“I was ready to get away from Miami,” Betancourt said. “In many ways, Miami is just an extension of Latin America and I always wanted my family to experience what I call the “real” U.S.A.”
Today, Betancourt works as a substance abuse and addiction counselor at Assisted Recovery Center of Georgia (ARC). ARC is a detox and treatment clinic specializing in medically assisted programs for alcoholism and opiate drug addiction offering outpatient services.
“In the beginning, this was a difficult transition for me,” she said. “For many years, I worked with children who had suffered so much at the hands of parents suffering from addiction and I wasn't sure I could find the compassion necessary to be a good counselor to individuals suffering from addiction. But, working as an addiction counselor, I discovered that, inside, we all struggle with bottled and unresolved issues and, for those suffering from addiction, recovery involves so much more than just willpower and resolve. Drugs really do rewire your brain. Neurons in the brain are responsible for addiction behaviors. Medications allow the brain to reestablish its natural equilibrium. Will-power alone is not capable of doing this.”
The CIT course is a 40-hour, five-day curriculum comprised of both classroom instruction and practical exercises delivered by mental health professionals, other subject matter experts and CIT law enforcement instructors.
Betancourt said CIT training teaches police officers how to spot behaviors and signals that are unique to mental illness and drug consumption.
“One role-playing exercise that really has an impact on our officers is when we share a simple narrative with them, then ask them to repeat the story back to us,” she said. “All the while, other officers are standing close to them shouting in their ears and trying to distract them. The subjects become very agitated and frustrated because they are unable to complete this simple task. If you've ever had a friend or loved-one suffering from schizophrenia, this is exactly how they feel when the 'voices' inside their heads are talking to them.”
Betancourt said she also teaches officers to recognize how certain drugs affect users.
“Some drugs make you very aggressive,” she said. “With cocaine, you feel invincible and can become very dangerous. Other drugs create lethargy and make it all but impossible for a suspect to respond to the officer's commands.”
Not all of Betancourt's work as a counselor occurs in a clinical setting.
“Sometimes, we are called upon to respond to a client who is suffering a crisis or breakdown out on the street or in a private dwelling,” she said. “I can tell you, from experience, I feel much safer knowing that the police officer who is responding to that crisis is someone who has been through our CIT training. Having the tools to look at a situation from a calmer perspective is always in the best interest of everyone involved.”
Long-term, Betancourt would like to see CIT training expanded to other settings beyond law enforcement.
“We all know that students are under a lot of stress,” she said. “I would love to be involved with a CIT program that helps colleges and universities train counselors and advisors to watch for problems with students suffering from these same issues.”
The SCMPD makes the CIT Training Program available to other law enforcement agencies in surrounding areas when it is offered at SCMPD. Since the program’s inception at SCMPD approximately 750 officers have become certified CIT Officers. It is coordinated by APO Hilary Nielsen, (912) 525-3100 ext: 3008

Issue Month: 
Wednesday, May 31, 2017