Editorial: Mental health crisis training for officers is essential

Police officers and emergency responders from local agencies last week took 40 hours of training that will better equip them for calls they receive all too often — those that involve a person with mental health issues.

The Republic’s Mark Webber drew readers into what police and emergency responders experienced in one of 17 exercises, this one designed to simulate what a person with schizophrenia might experience: “Imagine answering hard questions, completing a timed crossword puzzle, or counting several objects on a floor — all while three different voices are being pumped simultaneously into your head.”

More officers locally and throughout the state should receive this kind of training. We commend the 17 officers from the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, Columbus Police Department, Columbus Regional Health and Hope Police Department who participated in this training, making Bartholomew County the 12th in Indiana to begin providing crisis intervention training to first responders. Sgt. Andrew Whipker of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department and Sgt. Alyson Eichel of the Columbus Police Dept. facilitated the program.

Federal studies estimate that 6 to 10% of all police calls involve someone experiencing a mental health crisis, and a disproportionate percentage of people behind bars have an underlying mental health diagnosis. Training that’s mindful of those realities is a necessity.

Beyond the training, the county’s crisis intervention training team that includes nonprofits, mental health professionals and law enforcement representatives is building bridges that can help people who need it, but who in the past may have simply been taken into custody.

“This type of communication hasn’t existed between law enforcement and the mental health community in Bartholomew County since – probably forever,” Whipker said. “It’s brought a lot of change for the good.”

This training also dovetails with policing reforms heralded by our state leaders. The legislature this year passed, and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed, House Enrolled Act 1006. That law was born amid the outcry and protests over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, but the law did far more than restrict the use of police chokeholds and use of deadly force.

Indiana’s new police reform law emphasizes how police officers train. And rightly so. The law sets state standards for police training while also establishing de-escalation training as mandatory for all officers.

The training our local officers undertook last week embodies what the new law demands, and it demonstrates a commitment toward positive change from law enforcement. It’s encouraging to see local agencies lead in meeting the letter and the spirit of Indiana’s sweeping police reform laws. The officers who took this training are public servants who now better understand some of the most challenging situations they may encounter, whether they’re dispatched on a routine call or a dire emergency.

For police and emergency responders, the most powerful tool at their command often is their wits. Having the knowledge, empathy and understanding to better encounter people in a mental health crisis better serves the public as well as those we rely on to serve and protect us.