Austin police officers will start attending more mandatory classes on mental health this month after audits found problems with how officers react to people experiencing mental health crises.
Police officers are currently required to undergo 40 hours of mental health training over the course of their career; new requirements will increase that training to 80 hours.
“I think we’re really good at it,” APD Sgt. Michael King said. “We’re going to keep getting better at it, and we’re going to keep training our guys to do the best they can to help people.”
King said current training includes how to spot the signs and symptoms of mental illness, identify common medications and ways to calm someone down. The new training will teach officers how to detain someone who may be threatening violence against themselves or others.
In 2018, city auditors found that of the largest cities in the U.S., Austin had the highest per capita rate of deadly police shootings of people experiencing mental health crises. In response, the city ordered a more in-depth study of the problems.
The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute found that police were more likely to use force on someone when they hadn’t been told by the 911 dispatcher that the person was experiencing a mental health crisis.
King said APD is also hoping to begin eight additional hours of training for 911 call takers in February, to help them to better identify what’s going on when someone calls and whether a police officer is the best person to respond.
Kathy Mitchell, a policy coordinator with the criminal justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said who shows up when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis can have a big impact on the outcome. Last year, the City of Austin put $1.2 million toward helping EMS personnel better connect people with mental health services.
“It’s a big difference having EMS show up,” Mitchell said. “They’re not armed. What they bring in their hands is medical equipment and the expectation that that person is there to treat your medical needs is kind of the message that whole apparatus sends.”
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