Experts: Mental Health Training for Peace Officers Increases Safety, Saves Money

May 08, 2015

LOS ANGELES – Greater mental health training for officers not only increases the margin of safety for both them and people with mental illnesses but also improves community trust and saves taxpayer dollars, police and mental health professionals said before a California State Senate subcommittee hearing today.

“The experts made it clear: Improving mental health training for our peace officers is the right thing,’’ said Sen. Jim Beall, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health.

“Investing in training and increasing the hours of training for officers can and will save their lives, the lives of people with mentally illnesses, and reduce incarceration and court costs.’’

Beall convened the Friday hearing to take testimony from a wide range of experts that included Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, retired San Diego Police Chief and co-author of Proposition 47 Bill Lansdowne, and attorney Pamila Lew, of Disability Rights California.

Beall is the author of SB 11 and SB 29 to increase behavioral health training for officers. The existing California Peace Officer Standards and Training program, which can run from 16 to 25 weeks of instruction depending on the jurisdiction, mandates only six hours of training for mental health, and physical and developmental disabilities compared with 40 hours for investigative report writing.

The hearing included testimony from witnesses who had been diagnosed with mental disorders and who had grown fearful of police after their encounters with officers. They also said even when they were victims of crime, police often refused to act solely because they of their condition. This caused many victims to not file a report nor seek police help.

"People with mental illness fear police because they say their illness is treated as a crime," said Senator Mitchell. "That's got to change. Let's get our officers trained."

Lew said her organization had surveyed law enforcement agencies and learned officers spent more time on mental health calls than any other type of call. Departments that spent more own resources to expand mental health training for officers had better outcomes, fewer injuries, fewer incidences of use of force, and less litigation. “One chief told us, ‘Either you take the time to pay for training now or pay more in the longer run,’’’ she said.

McDonnell said 40 percent of use-of-force incidents were related to people with mental health illnesses.  He also voiced support for more funding of mental health training as well as investments in community-based mental health treatment and therapy centers.

Expanding mental health training is more imperative than ever because officers “are not first responders, they are the only responder to most calls’’ since they make the on-scene decision whether to call out paramedics, Lansdowne said. 

More training will increase safety both for those with mental illness but also for officers, said BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey, who noted the preponderance of injuries to officers stem from cases with people with mental disorders. His department implemented additional training to give officers more strategies and tools to defuse potentially dangerous confrontations with people with mental illnesses.

The result, Rainey said, was a dramatic decrease in officers injured while making arrests and a corresponding reduction in worker’s compensation liability, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for BART.

“This training is needed now more than ever,’’ he said