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Clinical psychologist helps with standoffs, profiling of criminal suspects

Roger Belisle

Roger Belisle, clinical psychologist with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office 

The duties of one unique yet highly valuable employee at the Pennington County Sheriff's Office seems straight out of a crime drama, but Dr. Roger Belisle's educational background and training as a licensed clinical psychologist caters to the world of law enforcement.

Belisle started working in the position three years ago, noting that there were very few job openings for the position of a psychologist in a law enforcement agency.

With 25 years of experience in the field under his belt, Belisle conducts psychological assessments, investigative and interrogative assistance, psychological profiles, hostage negotiations case reconstruction, psychological autopsies, threat assessments and training for the Pennington County Sheriff's Office.

He is also dispatched alongside the joint special response team in various situations, such as Saturday's standoff which ended peacefully after an armed man spent nearly half the day barricaded in is home after law enforcement officers attempted to take him into custody while serving an arrest warrant.

"I work as just one cog in a collaborative team," Belisle said. "I rely on multiple data points. I go in with an open mind. Often times I'm using incomplete data and I connect the dots the best I can and make inferences based on my educational experience to help maximize the outcomes of the encounter."

Belisle negotiated with 34-year-old Jeremy Phelps, who was armed with three large knives and threatened to kill himself during the standoff, eventually coaxing him to willingly and peacefully be taken into custody. Phelps was taken to a hospital for a mental health hold following the standoff for evaluation.

It's not the first critical incident he has been called out to, Belisle said.

Almost any high-risk incident response includes Belisle, who is one of only a few individuals employed by a law enforcement agency in South Dakota to provide mental health services.

The former psychological professor and supervisory clinical psychologist for the U.S. Department of Defense at Fort Hood in Texas said he also responded to help assess the psychological profile of the suspect in the bomb threat incident at South Dakota Mines that led to an evacuation and sweep of the campus on Oct. 29.

The suspect called in the threat to dispatch, stating that several bombs were placed throughout the school's campus, though an extensive search yielded no explosive devices.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is leading the investigation but has yet to make any arrests in the case.

There's not a murder case Belisle can recall that he hasn't used conducting psychological profiles to help aid investigators in determining how the events played out and the best interrogation methods based on a person's personality.

He also performs psychological assessments for every new hire at the Pennington County Sheriff's Office to help make sure those entrusted to serve and protect have their hearts and minds in the right place.

"The collaboration between law enforcement and psychology is really a newer one," Belisle said. "There is really still a stigma and resistance and lack of knowledge about the use of psychology in law enforcement."

At the Pennington County Sheriff's Office, Belisle said law enforcement offices have embraced the services he provides, especially when it comes to enhancing wellness for everyone on staff and offering psychological services within a law enforcement setting. For instance, Belisle leads debriefings for first responders and law enforcement officers following critical incidents.

"Several years ago when I looked for a position like this there were only about a half dozen open positions, but this one really had exactly what I wanted," he said. "They're really open to doing the best we can to maximize law enforcement encounters and employee wellness."

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