Police officers graduate first mental health crisis training

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - They handle dangerous calls every day, but some of the most frightening for police can be dealing with someone who's mentally ill.
Nearly 30 police officers and sheriff's deputies completed 40 hours of a mental health crisis intervention course.

"This is an epidemic, that's not only happening here in Huntsville, it's happening all over the United States," Madison police chief Dave Jernigan said.

They're tasked with being able to handle any situation. But more recently, police say dispatchers have been flooded with mental health calls.

"Our jails are not the treatment facilities for these types of people. We realize that," Huntsville police chief Mark McMurray said.

"They may be speaking out of their mind or seeing things that may not necessarily be there," Huntsville police Sgt. Grady Thigpen said.

It's a subject that hits close to home for Huntsville police, 10 months after a man who was feeling suicidal and potentially armed was shot and killed by an officer.

"Those in a mental health crisis aren't always making rational decisions," WellStone Behavioral Health CEO Jeremy Blair said. "And so this helps them be able to say, let me separate the illness from the person."

On Friday, 26 police and sheriff's deputies became the first graduates of a crisis intervention course.

"How to listen, how to understand when you're encountering someone in a mental health crisis, to speak a little differently, slow it down," Blair said.

Among the graduates are officers who work first, second and third shift for Huntsville police. So 24 hours a day, there will be an officer on duty equipped with the training.

"The ultimate goal is for the officer to arrive home safely at the end of a shift, that's the ultimate goal, so this gives them another tool," Blair said.

Huntsville police have partnered with WellStone Behavioral Health for about five years. The new course was paid for with a Bureau of Justice Assistance grant.

Instructors tell WHNT News 19 the training doesn't remove the use of deadly force by an officer.

Police tell us there will be more than 12 more officers who will take the course in April.

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