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Editorial: More police need training to respond to mental health emergencies

Austin American-Statesman - 8/7/2019

Austin police officers need the right tools to do their jobs. Unfortunately, too many are missing a critical skill set: Advanced training on handling situations in which a person is having a mental health crisis.

Among the 15 most populous U.S. cities, Austin has the highest rate of fatal police shootings involving people with mental health issues, an audit last year found. Apart from adding to that distressing statistic, last week's shooting of a man having a breakdown at the Spring Condominiums underscored the need for more crisis-trained officers. Such an officer was requested at the scene, but the only one in that patrol area was tied up at another call.

All police academy cadets get basic training on working with people with mental illness, but the Austin Police Department currently has just 162 officers with advanced training who can be deployed when a mentally unstable person is threatening harm to themselves or others. That's only 8% of the department's nearly 2,000 sworn officers, or a couple of officers in each patrol sector on any given shift.

Hundreds more have had some advanced training but aren't designated to handle mental health calls. That's not good enough in a city that has seen mental health-related calls to police double over the past decade.

We welcome a provision in City Manager Spencer Cronk's proposed budget that would increase the number of crisis-trained officers, ready to be dispatched to any scene, to 232, or about 12% of the force. Still, Austin needs to plan for a sizable boost beyond that. Experts recommend 20% to 25% of the patrol officers should have the training to handle these calls.

The city Public Safety Commission's recommendation this week to provide advanced crisis intervention training to all officers reflects a raw frustration we share: Too often a person having a mental breakdown ends up going to the morgue after someone calls police for help. We agree that universal training would be ideal. But also we recognize police must devote funding to other needs highlighted in last year's audit, including better training for 911 dispatchers to recognize when a crisis-trained officer is needed, and connecting computer systems so officers responding to a call can see information about that person's previous incidents with police.

Mental health emergencies are just a fraction of the calls Austin police handle every year, but when these incidents happen, they can quickly become matters of life or death. Our city needs more officers with the specialized training to keep everyone safe.


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