Police training program shows promise

I have written a number of times about the over-representation of mentally ill individuals in our justice system and have also voiced concern over the often-violent interaction between those with psychiatric conditions and the police.

A 2012 Canadian study noted that 40 percent of people with psychiatric disorders had been arrested in their lifetime.

Too frequently, officers are simply not equipped to deal effectively with a mentally ill person in distress.

According to data published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, a new police training program in Alberta is showing promise.

This unique program, created at the University of Alberta, is being tested on members within Edmonton’s police service. Its goal is to teach officers to deal more effectively with individuals experiencing a variety of psychiatric conditions.

Actors portray mentally ill individuals in a variety of scenarios and police officers are observed and given feedback on their interactions. Details such as the tone of voice the police officer uses, their stance, their perceived empathy and attempts to create rapport are examined. Feedback comes from supervising officers, the actors themselves as well as psychologists.

More than 600 police officers participated and each were involved in six different scenarios that are commonly encountered. Some of the scenarios include interactions with: depressed and belligerent individuals near a weapon; psychotic individuals experiencing hallucinations; excited individuals behaving strangely on a public street.

A follow up survey was completed after six months and supervising officers reported improvements in the trainees’ abilities to verbally de-escalate situations and show empathy. They also found an increase in mental health calls and a marked decrease in the use of force against people with psychiatric disorders.

Study authors did note that other initiatives were also implemented at around the same time to encourage less use of force in all circumstances.

Mental health training for police is different in almost every jurisdiction across our country and different programs are being tested and showing promise – including the introduction of mobile mental health crisis teams in some places. Until recently, most of these attempts at addressing the way law enforcement interacts with mentally ill people have not been rigorously studied.

I am happy to see some effort being put toward teaching police how to deal with situations involving those with mental illness. More study in this area is needed and I sincerely hope it will continue and that training programs such as this will be adopted across the country.

It is high time we equip our law enforcement officers to understand and treat ill people with compassion rather than excessive force.


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