Mental health training for police expanding, but some say not enough

Updated 1/3/2017 6:25 PM

Every day, police officers respond to mental health calls -- sometimes identified as such, sometimes not.

And every month, more officers get training to learn the signs and symptoms of mental conditions and ways to communicate with people in mental crisis.


Training following the Crisis Intervention Team program, known as the gold standard, is expanding, with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board planning to offer at least 46 sessions in 2017, up from 39 in 2016, Executive Director Brent Fischer said. Each 40-hour session can train up to 45 officers.

But the expansion is not quick enough, say some police and mental health experts, who are concerned about the effect of limited training budgets on efforts to ensure officers are prepared.

And training alone cannot prevent all instances of officers using force, such as in the police-involved shooting early Monday of 17-year-old Trevon Johnson near Villa Park.

Police in that case said Johnson may have been mentally disabled; family members declined to discuss the issue.

"When an incident occurs and a threat presents itself, an officer still would have to respond to what they're presented with," Oak Brook police Chief James Kruger said. "Unfortunately, in some of these circumstances, it's tragic."

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In DuPage County, where sources say the first sheriff's deputy on scene fired multiple shots that killed Johnson, Fischer said efforts are underway to bring Crisis Intervention Team training to more officers.

Fischer said DuPage County Sheriff John Zaruba is working to get curriculum and instructors certified so the county can host courses that will inform deputies in DuPage.

Going through the Crisis Intervention Team program allows officers to act out how they would handle a person hearing voices or how they would persuade someone to seek mental health help without arresting them and forcibly taking them to a hospital.

New knowledge also imparts empathy, said Patricia Doyle, who runs Crisis Intervention Team trainings and other mental health sessions for police through her business, Vision for Change.

"Once they (officers) understand that this is a medical illness and that the behavior they're seeing, the person isn't choosing -- that it's related to the brain disorder," Doyle said, "then they understand better how to de-escalate a mental health call."

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