US Police Pair With Mental Health Workers For Crises Incidents, Expand De-Escalation Training

By Victoria Kim 10/07/16

Some police departments are pairing cops with mental health professionals to help de-escalate emergency situations.

US Police Pair With Mental Health Workers For Crises Incidents, Expand De-Escalation Training

Police in the U.S. have earned a reputation for using excessive force and killing innocent Americans. The government’s War on Drugs has only further strained relations between law enforcement and civilians—as police have botched many a drug raid, killing children and pets in the crossfire. They also inevitably demonize the very people they’re meant to protect and serve for an act as benign as, say, smoking marijuana. 

The issue of racist policing is no secret either. But according to a recent USA Today report, a lack of mental health training is a major factor in deadly police standoffs. Last year, the Treatment Advocacy Center, a mental health advocacy organization, found that people suffering from mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police. 

Police officers often find themselves face-to-face with people experiencing mental health crises, but their lack of training has resulted in unnecessary killings. The latest example happened just last week in El Cajon, California, where 38-year-old Alfred Olango was shot dead by police while in the midst of a mental breakdown. 

Some police departments are expanding de-escalation training and even pairing officers with mental health workers to act as “co-responders” to emergency calls. 

"The training for handling upset mentally ill persons who 'go off' should start at initial training (police academy)," Lt. Tony Ryan, a 36-year veteran of the Denver Police Department, told The Fix via email. "It should be intense, with complete explanations of what upset mentally ill persons get 'set off' by. That can be many things."

Ryan has seen the impact of American drug laws firsthand. As a retired police lieutenant, he is a speaker with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a coalition of current and former law enforcement professionals including police officers, judges, correctional officers, and more, who believe the war on drugs is a failure.

"First and foremost, officers need to be as unthreatening as possible, considering they're wearing the uniform and therefore already threatening," said Ryan.

But training the police isn’t the entire solution. Laura Usher of NAMI says a more well-rounded solution would be for the police to form “partnerships with their local mental health agencies and advocates” to transform how the community approaches people in a mental health crisis. 

In August, Minneapolis introduced a pilot program that will do just that—pair police officers with mental health professionals. Los Angeles and San Antonio have also been using this strategy.

USA Today followed up with one of these co-responders, Megan Younger, who has worked with the Overland Park Police Department in Kansas since 2014. In one year, Younger responded to 129 calls where she was able to divert people to mental health care.

That same year, she helped Overland Police avoid making 40 arrests, saving the department $61,000.

“They see the difference between us and her,” said Officer Jackie Zickel, who once worked with Younger to talk down a man on a destructive rampage during a schizophrenic episode. 

“It helps them understand that we’re here to make sure the situation stays safe, and that she is there to help them get out of the crisis.” 

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr