Law enforcement officers from agencies in Tuscaloosa County finished training intended to help them better respond to mental health crises Friday afternoon at the Law Enforcement Academy in Tuscaloosa.

Craig Parker, a sergeant with the Tuscaloosa Police Department and a certified mental health officer, said the training was more necessary than ever as law enforcement officers are increasingly called upon to interact with people who may be mentally ill or suicidal.

Stephanie Taylor, TPD's public information officer, said the department has responded to 592 mental health calls and 192 reports of a suicidal person so far in 2020 -- that's a dramatic increase from recent years. TPD responded to 392 mental health calls in all of 2019, 213 in 2018, 214 in 2017 and 205 in 2016.

"The United States is in the middle of a mental health crisis and a lot of times, unfortunately, police officers and deputies are put on the front lines of that crisis," Parker said. "It behooves us at this point to receive extra training on how exactly to deal with this on the street and provide some of the services that these people so greatly need."

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The 40-hour training block was conducted by officers with the Huntsville Police Department in conjunction with professionals from the Indian Rivers Mental Health Center and the North Harbor Psychiatric Facility.

Parker said officers with TPD, APD and the County Sheriff's Office were trained to recognize but not necessarily diagnosis mental illness on calls, de-escalate situations that threaten to turn violent and more.

Friday's training included roleplaying scenario techniques, wherein officers interacted with actors portraying people who had suicidal urges and other mental illness.

 

"These are very unpredictable calls and a lot of time logic and reason do not play into these calls whatsoever," Parker said. "That's a tremendous hurdle for us to overcome when we respond to a scene -- We're used to using our command presence, issuing orders and those orders being obeyed. That doesn't necessarily happen on these types of calls so a lot of times we have to apply what we call 'soft skills' and use a little patience, we have do more listening than we're used to doing, we have to slow down asking questions and let people talk."

Parker said right now, there are four certified mental health officers at TPD, two at TCSO, one at UAPD and one with the Northport Police Department. The goal is to get those numbers much higher, but Parker said the process is just beginning.

"As far as the mental health officer program in general, I would say we're in the infant stages of it," he said. "This is something that has long been overlooked in the state of Alabama."