Police training on mentally ill slimmed down 

Police officers will receive less training to deal with the mentally disabled now that the department will take over a program that trains officers to deal with crises. 

The move will save the Police Department money, but it has created concern that officers won’t be trained to deal with potentially deadly situations.

The program was developed almost a decade ago by the Mental Health Board to train police officers for 40 hours in communication techniques, active listening and how to deal with people with mental and personality disorders, according to board Executive Director Helynna Brooke. Since its inception in 2001, more than 900 officers have graduated from the program.

“It can be as simple as if someone is shouting at the police officer,” Brooke said. “The human tendency is to scream back, but it’s actually better to lower your voice. Just that simple technique can help a person come to attention.”

The City has the most mental-health detentions in the state. In a three-month period, San Francisco police were responsible for 843 separate mental-health incidents involving 638 individuals, according to a recent department study on officer-involved shootings.

Officer Kelly Dunn, who has been the SFPD’s psychiatric liaison for four years, worked in the mental-health field in San Francisco before becoming an officer at 37 years old. She’s now tasked with “doing more with less” by keeping the training program going at the Police Academy.

The plan is to continue the level of instruction from mental-health professionals, but officers will no longer be able to interact with actual patients at clinics or have the luxury of being in a retreat atmosphere, Dunn said.

“I don’t know if I’m kidding myself, but I think the level of information will be the same,” she said.

Police Commissioner Jim Hammer recently voted against equipping police with Tasers because he feared they would be used by officers who did not have the training to deal with the mentally ill.

“I think that kind of training is crucial for the safety of our officers, and it helps to avoid violent confrontations with the mentally ill,” Hammer said.

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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Brent Begin

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