SALT LAKE CITY — The training the Salt Lake City Police Department gives its officers on how to deal with mentally ill subjects is being recognized nationally.
Friday, the department was designated by the U.S. Justice Department's Council of State Governments Justice Center as one of six law enforcement agencies in the nation that will serve as a "learning site."
The government says the learning sites will act "as centers for peer-to-peer learning for other criminal justice and mental health agencies and organizations."
The Justice Center has identified a total of five mental health courts and six law enforcement agencies that have "comprehensive and successful criminal justice/mental health programs" that "use a range of effective responses to people with mental illnesses involved with the criminal justice system."
In 2001, the Salt Lake Police Department started offering Crisis Intervention Team training sessions, one week courses that teach officers how to not only detect a person with a mental illness, but also determine what illness the person may have and the proper way to interact with that person.
On the final day of each of the week-long courses, participants are put through live training scenarios. Actors are used for role playing scenarios involving various degrees of mentally ill subjects. The scenarios are based on real-life cases. The officers must decide how to deal with each scenario.
Maybe the most important lesson officers are taught is how to have empathy for the person with the illness.
"Our Crisis Intervention Team training program has made officers and the police department more effective in dealing with individuals suffering a mental health crisis," Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said in a prepared statement. "We appreciate the opportunity to serve as a learning site for our colleagues in other agencies so that they can build on our successes and learn from the obstacles we have overcome."
The department calls incidents involving mentally ill people "some of the most complex and time-consuming responses" police officers are asked to assist with.
"A 2009 study revealed that 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women entering local jails had serious mental illnesses. These rates are in excess of three to six times those found in the general population," according to Salt Lake police.
High-profile incidents of officers dealing with mentally ill, or potentially mentally ill, suspects in Utah alone have made headlines several times recently.
Most recently, in December, South Jordan police shot and killed a heavily armed man near the LDS Church's Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple after he had already tossed several weapons over the fence onto church grounds, and then ran toward a group of people with a loaded shotgun. Members of the man's family told police he had a history of mental illness.
In 2009, Brian Cardall went into cardiac arrest and died after twice being tased by police officers while he was in the midst of a psychotic episode on a highway near Hurricane. Cardall's family have called for a greater societal awareness about mental illness in light of their son's death and for law enforcers to have enhanced training in crisis intervention so they can develop greater empathy for people with mental illness and have the tools to de-escalate situations involving the mentally ill.