Huntsville police explain mental health training for officers

WAAY 31 is learning more about how Huntsville police officers are trained to help people with mental illnesses.

Posted: May 31, 2019 6:31 PM
Updated: May 31, 2019 6:58 PM

WAAY 31 is learning more about how Huntsville police officers are trained to help people with mental illnesses.

Crystal Ragland died Thursday in West Huntsville after she was shot by police. Officers said she tried to draw her gun on them. Ragland's friends told WAAY 31 she struggled with mental illness. Huntsville police have not commented on her mental health, because it's an ongoing investigation.

Huntsville police said it has a crisis intervention team made up of 40 certified mental health officers. The officers are assigned to different precincts in the city and are assigned to each shift. The mental health officers are trained to answer a variety of calls.

Lieutenant Jon Ware is the coordinator of the Huntsville police crisis intervention team.

"I've been a police officer for a long time, and over the years, we've seen the calls for mental health go up and up and up. Until recently, you had to handle them the best way you knew how," he said.

Ware received special training nearly 3 years ago, and he said it gave him a new mindset when responding to calls.

"If you don't have a mental illness, or if you don't have a person in your family that you have dealt with, with mental illness, sometimes it can be overwhelming to even try to figure out how to help these people. You want to, but you really just don't know where to point them in the right direction," he said.

Ware is one of 40 certified officers on the team, but said every officer in the department undergoes crisis training that is focused on deescalating situations and providing proper resources to people who are struggling.

"If you just woke up and you're suffering from a mental illness and you're scared and you're surrounded by a group of people, some in uniform, some with guns. All you think is, 'I got to get away. Somebody is going to hurt me,' or something to that extent," he said.

Ware explained officers learn phrases to use and different approaches when responding to a call. He said their goal is to send people with mental health problems for help instead of to jail. The department hopes it helps prevent future calls.

"It gives the officers on the street a lot more options on the street, a lot more options on how to help the people. Maybe it's the worst day of their life, or they have been struggling with mental health for a long time. Either one of those people, they can help," he said.

Lieutenant Ware said more officers are expected to get certified in crisis intervention training. He said all officers receive crisis intervention training each year.

Ware said the department is one of four in the country that received a grant for its officers to undergo crisis intervention training. He said the grant covered more than $60,000 worth of training.

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