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How much training law enforcement officers receive on handling mental health situations
Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish answers a question from the audience Thursday, July 2, at the Newtown Florist Club’s open-air conversation. The chief responded to concerns submitted by members of the public such as minority hiring, transparency and training. - photo by Nick Watson

When law enforcement is called to a situation, it often can be tense. When that situation involves someone with trauma in his or her background or with mental illness, it can be especially difficult for all involved. 

“It’s not always a diagnosable mental illness that causes problems, but it can be a lack of family support, childhood trauma, issues with poverty and housing, and things like that that really create a need,” said Anjana Freeman, a mental health clinician hired in March to work with the Gainesville Police Department. “When a person responds to that need, a lot of times they respond in a way that brings attention to law enforcement because they may be doing something illegal in order to fill a need that originated with instability in their community, and in their home, and personal instability.”

Freeman responds to situations in the field with Gainesville Police officers and consults with officers to advise them on encounters in the community.

Freeman, who has also worked with several area nonprofits, said many problems in society can be traced back to mental health.

And Freeman said mental health outreach is “as much about prevention as it is about intervention.”

“If I can intervene and get them resourced and connect them with community and help them build a sense of stability and safety, then the likelihood that they’re going to do something that creates another contact with law enforcement goes down tremendously,” she said. 

Behaviors that may seem aggressive can be triggered by trauma or a mental health issue, Freeman said.

“Often, people who are feeling defensive, and speaking in terms of current events, who may have racial or cultural trauma, they’re sort of expecting the worst and so they become defensive,” Freeman said. “Officers being able to recognize the signs of somebody who is being triggered, even if the officer is not doing anything to actively be aggressive or to trigger, just recognizing that is extremely helpful in being able to de-escalate the situation.”

Gainesville officers take a mental health awareness course  while in the basic academy, and Gainesville is now requiring officers to complete a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training, with the goal of all officers completing it within the next three years.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is working to get all its deputies through an eight-hour mental health first aid course, with the goal of completing that training by the end of the year while working with the schedule of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, spokesman Derreck Booth said. Crisis Intervention Team is currently voluntary for Sheriff’s Office employees.

The Sheriff’s Office will host a Crisis Intervention Team training at its training center the week of July 27. 

Freeman also encourages officers to take care of themselves.

“It all really begins with your own ability to recognize when you are stressed and overworked or feel threatened or perceive different things,” she said. “… Self-care is the foundation in handling high-stress situations.”

Gainesville police officers are taught “verbal judo,” or how to de-escalate the situation verbally.

We don’t want to have to use force, so the situation is we try to de-escalate, we’re communicating, we’re talking through, we’re trying to understand what’s going on.
Gainesville police spokeswoman Cpl. Jessica Van

“We don’t want to have to use force, so the situation is we try to de-escalate, we’re communicating, we’re talking through, we’re trying to understand what’s going on,” Gainesville police spokeswoman Cpl. Jessica Van said.

In September 2019, Gainesville police responded to a report of a man waving a gun and walking near Northeast Georgia Medical Center. According to police, Adam English, 21, of Oakwood, did not comply with verbal commands to drop the weapon. He was shot by two officers and transported to the nearby NGMC, where he was pronounced dead. 

According to English’s friends and family, he had been seeking addiction treatment. English’s father filed a lawsuit June 15 against the police department and two officers. 

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff, English’s father, alleges that the officers “were aware that Adam English suffered from some form of mental illness” but “failed to make reasonable accommodation for Adam English’s disability by deciding to escalate the encounter into a use of deadly force rather than to utilize de-escalation or other nonlethal strategies which should have been part of their training.”

While Gainesville police said they were unable to comment on English’s case since it has not been resolved in the courts, Chief Jay Parrish said officers balance responsibilities of protecting everyone involved.

“We try to be more accommodating in the sense of understanding, but we still have a duty to protect the public and protect the person,” Parrish said. “Some mental illnesses, if they become violent, we have to act. We have to physically act, regardless of whether there’s mental illness or not.”

And while officers may have some training, Freeman has years of experience as a counselor and can provide additional expertise, Parrish said.

“Some of the things they do may be criminal in nature, but it’s misdemeanor stuff and it’s related to addiction, mental health, socioeconomic (status),” he said. “We want to get them the help they need.”

Lt. Kelley Edwards, training director for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies can help someone seek care at a hospital or mental health facility if they learn through an interaction that someone needs treatment.

“If we can recognize the help that somebody needs, and get them that help, versus putting them in jail because of the way something looks upfront, that’s always a success,” Edwards said.

And “every mental health call that we go to, you cannot say that it’s the same as another one,” posing a challenge, Edwards said.

“Everything unfolds really fast. … Everything is different, and depending what’s going on, you have to make the choice with what you’re faced with, and it’s not always easy,” he said.

Crisis Intervention Team training

The Georgia Public Safety Training Center’s Crisis Intervention Team training is a 40-hour, one-week course devoted to learning about mental health and hearing from those who have experienced mental health issues. Local organizations that address mental health, including Avita Community Partners and National Alliance on Mental Illness Hall, are involved with that training. 

Van said 51% of Gainesville police officers have completed CIT training. About 6% of sworn Sheriff’s Office employees have completed the course. Both departments also offer mental health first aid, a one-day course. 

The Georgia Public Safety Training Center took over the crisis training program in 2017, and before then, it had been offered in Georgia through the Georgia Bureau of Investigation since 2005.

Andy Garner, the CIT program supervisor with the training center, said the program aims to teach officers how to connect people with the proper resources.

“The goal of CIT is to identify individuals that have mental illnesses and divert them from incarceration if that’s not what they need, to actually direct them to services to assist with the underlying mental illness,” Garner said. “... Now, that does not mean relieve them of any criminal liability that they may have incurred during the process of the interaction, but it does give them a different option to seek treatment.”

During the program, the officers hear from mental health clinicians and providers about recognizing the signs of mental illness and developmental disabilities. They also go to a treatment facility or community center to spend time with those directly affected. Other presenters include those with a mental illness or family members of those with mental illness.

Officers also learn about the legal rights of both first responders and community members who may have a mental illness, and they role-play scenarios.

The first CIT training in the country was held in 1988, after a man who had been dealing with mental health issues was killed by Memphis police. People from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Memphis group approached the mayor about mental health training for police, and a task force was formed of police, NAMI, mental health providers and hospital officials to develop the program. The program has since been adopted in several states. NAMI is still involved, and NAMI Hall participates locally.

Sherry Franklin, the vice president of NAMI Hall, presents at CIT trainings. She said she hopes the training helps put a face on the issue.

Hopefully, what those stories do is they help the officers to see the humanness in the story. It’s not just about techniques.
Sherry Franklin, vice president of NAMI Hall

“Hopefully, what those stories do is they help the officers to see the humanness in the story. It’s not just about techniques,” Franklin said.

Franklin, who presents on her experience of helping a loved one, said she discusses at training how those seeking assistance can request a CIT-trained officer come to the scene.

“That way, they know not to come with sirens. We don’t want to call attention and magnify the situation and make it more traumatizing,” she said. 

During the training, a person who has experienced mental illness will also discuss their own diagnosis and recovery experience, as well as any personal encounters they’ve had with police.

Franklin said “police officers know how to use the training that they’ve received normally, but this is a different kind of training altogether.”

“They have to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Depending on the situation, you have to read it. Sometimes, people don’t want you to have eye contact with them,” she said. “... Getting down on someone’s level, getting down on your knee to talk to them, and being quiet and friendly, personable, asking just simple questions, and just trying to see how the person is doing, how can you help them.”

Franklin said if officers introduce themselves and take time to get to know the person, the outcome can be positive.

“Sometimes, it’s something simple,” she said. “They just needed somebody to listen to them, and from there, maybe (the officer) can get the contact information of a loved one and help them to come to the scene.”

Avita Community Partners, a local resource for those with mental illness, developmental disabilities and addiction, also participates in CIT training. Counselors and administrators inform the officers about a variety of mental illnesses and about how to identify the signs and gather the information they need.

Cindy Levi, executive director of Avita, said connecting people with mental health resources can make law enforcement encounters safer for everyone.

“Of course, (officers) want to ensure the safety of everyone involved, and we also want law enforcement to understand that in situations where perhaps an individual is experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, that they do have resources in the community that they can be connected with,” Levi said.

Levi said she would like mental health awareness training to become a requirement for all officers.

“Every law enforcement officer will come in to an encounter with someone that has a mental illness at some time in their career, so just to make certain that they can identify that and they can approach the individual with care and compassion and assist them in getting the treatment that they need,” she said.

Sessions at a CIT training include segments on schizophrenia, mood disorders, suicide prevention and intervention, neurodevelopmental disabilities, post-traumatic stress, veterans and homelessness, addiction and Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Community resources

Another way Avita partners with law enforcement is by offering mental health services for those incarcerated locally.

Avita’s 10-member community treatment team takes services to people where they are, including if they are incarcerated or homeless, Levi said.

A mental health provider is available for telehealth services on a weekly basis to treat Hall County Jail inmates and prescribe medication if needed. Levi said constant care is important both during incarceration and as someone is released from the jail.

“If they go off their medications, it’s almost like starting back at square one again whenever they’re released,” Levi said. “That continuity is really important.”

Levi said law enforcement can also reach out to Avita with questions about how to approach situations and help those who may be dealing with mental illness.

“It’s the safety of all involved, so the safety of the individual that may be experiencing (a mental health issue), the safety of the officers that may be responding, helping them to understand the resources that are available to support them,” Levi said.

At J’s Place, a Gainesville recovery center, staff are trained to de-escalate situations, so law enforcement does not usually need to get involved, executive director Jordan Hussey said.

But Hussey said if law enforcement is informed about situations as they respond, the outcome can be better for everyone.

“It’s imperative they be informed of any background information,” she said. “Is this person not violent? Does this person, when off their medication, think things are not what they are?”

Mental health and substance use are often related, Hussey said.

“Usually, mental health and substance use go hand-in-hand. One can actually exacerbate the other,” she said.

With both substance use and mental health, asking for help is an important first step, Hussey said.

“People can’t talk about options of getting well if no one knows they’re struggling, and if they’re not willing to admit that they may be struggling with something,” she said. “I think it’s important to have those open, honest conversations with someone that you can trust so you can develop tools.”

Having those conversations can also ease the stigma around mental illness and substance use, Hussey said.

“The problem has been for so long that people don’t want to talk about it. It’s embarrassing,” she said. “It is taboo. ‘We’re not those people.’ Really, we all are.”

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J's Place Executive Director Jordan Hussey inspects items donated needed for clients Friday, July 31, 2020. Hussey has seen a four times increase in demand for services recently at the recovery community organization in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers