News Article Details

Police training for mental health encounters now mandated by law

Journal Star - 11/24/2018

Nov. 24--PEORIA -- Deputies at the Peoria County Sheriff's Office have a leg up on others in the area when it comes to mental health training due to the nature of their job, says their boss.

"By the way that we do our hiring for the patrol division, they usually start off in the jail where they have exposure (to mental health issues)," said Sheriff Brian Asbell. ""And that's a huge benefit to our hiring process. We are ahead of the game as opposed to many other departments. Having that knowledge for years in that environment makes them better patrol officers and better able to deal with crisis situations."

A new state law will require more training for police officers and deputies statewide. The training must be done at least every three years and requires all to complete an eight-hour mental health training class.

Area officials in the Pekin and Peoria area are ahead of the curve on that, says Michael Oyer, the director of the Central Illinois Police Training Unit.

Of the roughly 2,000 sworn officers in the region, between 400 and 500 have taken that course or a more advanced one, Oyer said. Another 35 to 40 are signed up for a forthcoming December course at the facility housed on the Peoria campus of Illinois Central College, and another 100 or so are likely to take an online version.

The legislation got its start after the suicide of a 19-year-old man outside Kankakee. Sam Myers' family worked with state lawmakers to pass Sam's Law, which requires eight hours of training on basic mental health issues.

That covers ground from the history of mental health systems to the impact on law enforcement, facts and myths about mental illness, the stigma associated with it, and details about the types of mental illness that officers might encounter, including symptoms, said Jennifer Wooldridge, who directs special projects and coordinates Crisis Intervention Team work for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.

Amy Dotson, a spokeswoman with the Peoria Police Department, said the city's officers "receive continuous, on-going mental health training throughout the year.

"In addition, all commissioned personnel will receive a block of mental health training during the week-long upcoming session of Core Training 2019," she wrote in an email.

Asbell has long called facilities like the Peoria County Jail a "de facto mental health institution." He and others have lamented the lack of state resources that often force those with mental health issues into the criminal justice system.

Yet that also means his jailers are learning daily how to deal with affected people, and his office has pushed working with other community agencies to help people while they are incarcerated as well as when they are released.

The course at ICC also addresses how officers can best deal with those situations.

"Once you recognize the signs, how do you respond? Verbal tactics and all of that," including de-escalation techniques, said John Keigher, the attorney for ILETSB.

A report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority estimates that "as many as 10 percent of police contacts include individuals with mental health conditions."

Between addiction issues and other mental health concerns, "depending on the neighborhood you're in, a fairly significant percentage of calls made by police have a mental health issue behind them," agrees John Schladweiler, the board president for the state's organization of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Hence the benefit of the basic-level training to area departments.

"When a guy that's been trained is on patrol and he comes across somebody he thinks is having mental health issues, it'll be advantageous for him to know whether this guy needs to go to jail, or whether he needs to call (the Emergency Response Service at the Human Service Center in Peoria)," Washington Police Chief Mike McCoy said.

"Obviously, any training officers have is going to benefit them in the situation," Pekin Police Department spokeswoman Officer Billie Ingles said, adding Pekin Chief John Dossey plans to send more officers to the forthcoming December basic mental health course in Peoria.

In McCoy's earlier days as a patrol officer, incidents with someone showing signs of mental illness usually resulted in an individual being taken to Zeller Mental Health Center, but that shuttered early this century.

"When they closed Zeller, now the jails are the dumping grounds," said McCoy, a former Peoria County sheriff. McCoy and Asbell, who was the jail's superintendent under McCoy, have long advocated more mental health awareness for employees at the jail.

And while Asbell pushes strongly for the training, he also notes it's an issue in these budget-strapped times.

"The difficulty for the sheriff's office to get this training done is the obvious cost whenever we do training. We are so lean on staff that anytime we pull someone out for training, there is an overtime component," Asbell said, adding that online training, while not ideal, is a good way to educate but also to save costs.

Another course available for officers is Crisis Intervention Training, a week-long course that's already on the books that addresses mental health as well as other crisis situations. After a few years with little interest, Oyer said that within the last two years "our classes are full any time we offer it."

Its completion also counts toward the every-three-years requirement, he said. Statewide, about 20 percent of the 35,000 to 37,000 sworn officers have received that training, Keigher said. More than 50 CIT courses were offered statewide this year.

"In the 15 years we've done those, it's just increased in popularity every year," he said. "In some regions, it registers out within moments of being offered."

The mandate for mental health training does not apply to jailers, Keigher said, but he noted that some correctional officers have gone through the more intensive CIT course. That's been popular enough that they're planning a specific CIT course aimed at corrections.

Such programs have been offered for Illinois Department of Corrections employees with help from NAMI, Schladweiler said. IDOC staff noted afterward a reduction in the number of incidents and issues seen in state prisons, he said.

He sees a benefit to expanding training like that into county jails.

Cost can be a concern even for basic-level classes, nearly all departments agree, if only because then they have to back-fill their staffing for the day, which can lead to overtime costs.

But, at the end of that training, Oyer says officers have "a very good starting toolbox" for what they might face when encountering the mentally ill.

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(c)2018 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)

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