Tough calls: Law enforcement training for mental health emergencies

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- "People call the police, they're first responders all the time," said Candace Allen, senior director of adult intensive outpatient services at the Helen Ross McNabb Center.

No matter what the call is for, law enforcement officials have no choice but to respond.

"Officers don't get to pick the calls they go on, so as a result we need to be trained in all aspects of dealing with the community," said Jeremy McCord, detective in the Knox County Sheriff's Office major crimes unit. "Over the past few years, mental illness has become a huge impact in our community."

KCSO Patrol officer Taryn Bryant experiences calls where she has to figure out which role to play.

"Sometimes it's a little unreassuring not knowing exactly their mental state," she said.

Law enforcement agencies across Tennessee are sometimes the first to encounter someone suffering from some type of mental breakdown.

Those deputies and officials working with the Knox County Sheriff's Office are now required to go through nearly 40 hours of crisis intervention training. The training helps them to better understand how to deal with someone who may feels like they have no hope, and also helps them to deescalate a situation that could otherwise turn deadly.

"They're not social workers, they're not trained this way but they sure are trained to deescalate someone that's in psychiatric crisis, so it's a win-win for them and the person experiencing the crisis as well," said Allen.

"The officers are taught the signs and symptoms of mental illness, what types of questions to ask the family of those with a mental illness, and determine what type of care they need right then and there," explained McCord.

According to McCord, it's an officer or deputy's job to understand what is going on, if a crime is being committed, or if someone needs medical attention. This judgment is crucial to the end result being a peaceful one or violent one.

"CIT [crisis intervention training] has demonstrated a reduction in force nationwide, it's not only nationwide curriculum, it is an international curriculum," said Allen.

The training is all about keeping both the responding official and the person being reported safe.

"The goal of the CIT training is to help train the officers, go to these calls, and handle the calls before it gets more serious for the officer or the subject that's needing help, that way we can get them help instead of going to jail or getting officers hurt or the subject hurt," said Bryant.