In the wake of school shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, understanding mental health issues has become a major concern in the national dialogue. For authorities, part of that is having the skills to identify red flags, and in a criminal situation, to know when someone is in need of help.
Recognizing mental health has become a priority for the state of Connecticut. To educate workers, authorities have created the Crisis Intervention Team, which trains police officers in understanding how to recognize and respond to the spectrum of behavioral and mental health issues, according to NPR. The program, which is one of about 2,7000 across the country, teaches policemen everything ranging from assessing suicidal people to implementing de-escalation techniques. On Wednesday, Connecticut lawmakers even passed a bill that requires police officials across the state receive similar training.
Lance Newkircher, a patrol officer in Fairfield, Connecticut, said that it’s not difficult to interview “the person who just stole four tires from BJ’s” and get that person to admit what’s going on. But “it’s incredibly difficult to get someone who believes they have an assignment from the FBI to really admit that they don’t, and [that] they do need help, and it’s time to go and talk to somebody at the hospital. So that’s the skill set.”
Newkirchen is one of 18 that are part of Fairfield’s Crisis Intervention Team, which was launched about three years ago. (In total, there are 107 officers on the town’s force.) Members attend statewide workshops and seminars, which encourage police officers to foster relationships not just with their communities but with mental health providers as well.
Newkirchen points out that having this type of training gives officers a better understanding of a situation before they enter it. For example, if a policeman receives an emergency call from a house he has already visited responding to a suicide attempt, he has the details he needs to assess what happened before he gets there.
For Fairfield, that training is important. Newkirchen estimates he gets two to three calls per eight-hour shift regarding mental health.
“I would say 50 percent of the time, [the calls we get] are calls like this — where we are making, I think, a huge difference,” he told NPR. “We won’t be back, and that family has a very different sense of what we do as police officers.”
That’s a critical step in fostering a relationship between authorities and their community. As we grapple with national tragedies like Newtown, it’s vital that authorities understand the role that mental health can play in any situation.
“You know, protocol for a police officer is always, ‘Protect yourself,’ ” said third-year John McGrath. “To be able to learn what they’re thinking and what’s going on in their mind, kind of gives you a better perspective of what’s going on and what you’re able to do to further protect yourself and to protect them.”