The importance of mental health training for law enforcement officers

The importance of mental health training for law enforcement officers

JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - On February 18th, members of the Rankin County SWAT Team opened fire, killing 31-year-old Pierre Woods after he fired two shots at officers.

This brought an end to the two-hour standoff in Pelahatchie.

“I told the police that the boy has a mental problem. I said, ‘just let me go there and talk to him, he will listen to me,’” said one crying family member.

Four days earlier in Jackson, Sheila Ragland called police for help with her 31-year-old son Mario Clark, a paranoid schizophrenic who was having a psychotic episode.

“I asked them to come inside and help me with my baby. But when they came in, they came in strong,” Ragland said, recalling the events of that Valentine’s Day night.

A Columbus, Ohio police officer calmly talks to a man attempting to commit suicide.
A Columbus, Ohio police officer calmly talks to a man attempting to commit suicide.

Dr. Tiffany Anderson is the Mobile Crisis Coordinator at Hinds Behavioral Health Services. She is also the Crisis Interventionist Team (CIT) Coordinator.

“In training there is a set of skills that teaches officers how to de-escalate the person as opposed to intensify the situation. They learn things like tone of voice, introducing themselves, showing empathy towards that person, and learning how to recognize the emotion and not just the behavior of what they are doing,” she explained.

Anderson said that the benefit of having a CIT certified officer on scene during a mental health call, particularly one involving a person with psychotic tendencies, is their ability to assess and respond accordingly.

Anderson stands with newly certified CIT officers.
Anderson stands with newly certified CIT officers.

“When you come with the lights and the loud voices and the commands and even drawing your weapon, that can definitely scare somebody. You’re talking about somebody whose having psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices. They have to decided which one is real and which one is not,” she continued.

“Mental Health First Aid is like the CPR for someone in a mental health crisis,” explained Christiane Williams, a Mental Health Coordinator for Mississippi Department of Corrections and Certified Mental Health First Aid Public Safety Instructor.

“As a police officer, when I pulled up to a scene, I can’t tell if it’s drug induced. I don’t know. The only thing I go by is my training initially until I can figure it out or try to assess it,” she said. “We may still get it wrong, but at least if I have this training I do have a tool to fall back on.”

Christiane Williams, a Mental Health Coordinator for the MS Dept. of Corrections and Certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor discusses the importance of Mental Health training for all law enforcement officers.
Christiane Williams, a Mental Health Coordinator for the MS Dept. of Corrections and Certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor discusses the importance of Mental Health training for all law enforcement officers.

Williams said first and foremost safety is the biggest concern for officers when they answer a call.

“I’m an officer and I want to go back home the same way I left also, but at the same time... as an officer I must have the empathy to understand that there may be something wrong with a person."

As Chairperson of the State Mental Health Task Force, Williams wants mental health training to be weighed just as heavily as physical health training.

“If your brain is sick then the rest of your body isn’t going to function right and to its ability," she continued.

In order for law enforcement officers to help each other and the communities that they serve in the best way possible, Williams believes mental health training should be a requirement in all law enforcement agencies.

“The brain needs to be right there with the other parts,” she said.

CIT Training Exercise
CIT Training Exercise

Williams says if the training starts with the chief, the others will follow.

In the event of a mental health emergency, Williams recommends that families or persons suffering from a mental condition contact the Mobile Crisis Response Team at 1-877-210-8513.

The team is staffed with a Master’s level Mental Health Therapist, Community Support Specialist and a Peer Support Specialist. They are available 24 hours a day.

Additionally, both the Jackson Police Department and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department have a team of certified CIT officers that are specifically trained in mental health response. They can be requested when calling 911.

For more information on Mental Health and other resources, go to namims.org

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