Police to add to mental health skills

Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012
Law enforcement officials and mental health advocates are partnering to train police officers throughout the state on responding to situations involving mental illness, expanding the availability of specialized training for smaller departments with fewer resources.

While the curriculum for the upcoming series of sessions doesn't differ from what recruits receive at the state police academy, the regionalized approach is new. Coordinators say their aim is to make the training as accessible as possible.

'We do some training for certified officers, but that's a little more catch as catch can,' said Ken Norton, executive director of the state chapter on the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which will lead the training. 'I think the idea was, if it were more regional we might get more participation.'

The two-day training sessions will be held between February and May in Concord, Keene, Littleton and Portsmouth. The first day of training will focus on strategies for responding to behaviors caused by mental illness, while the second will address suicide prevention. Capt. Mark Bodanza, the in-service bureau commander at New Hampshire Police Standards and Training, said the curriculum matches what new recruits are taught at the academy.

Departments can send officers to one or both days of training, or split the two days between different sessions. That gives the police greater flexibility - a key consideration, Norton said.

Norton said he and law enforcement officials discussed the possibility of offering Crisis Intervention Training, a 40-hour course that follows a specific training model started in Memphis, Tenn. The Rochester and Manchester police departments have trained teams in the approach, and Concord is considering forming a team.

For smaller police departments, however, 'they just can't commit to that,' Norton said. He said CIT is 'still out there as an option,' but at this stage, coordinators decided to focus on making training more widely available.

NAMI is working with the state police academy and the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police Association to hold the training sessions. Primex, a public risk pool serving local municipalities, is underwriting the cost - a collaboration that came together after former Concord police chief Bob Barry became Primex's law enforcement consultant.

'What we're interested in are good safe outcomes for both the officers involved and the people they're involved with in the community as a whole,' Barry said. 'It's of great interest to me to see that our goals are achieved in this area.'

Barry retired from his position as police chief in June. Earlier last year, Concord police officers shot and killed a schizophrenic man who charged at them with a hatchet. The officers - who were ruled justified by the state attorney general's office - had gone to the man's Garvins Falls Road apartment building that day to take him to the state psychiatric hospital.

The Concord incident was among a string of shootings last year by New Hampshire police officers involving people with mental illness. Asked whether the shootings had prompted the upcoming training sessions, Norton said, 'I think it added some incentive.'

But the training won't tell officers what to do when threatened by a person who is mentally ill and has a weapon - a situation present in recent police shootings. 'That's not our area of expertise,' Norton said.

The sessions were only recently announced, meaning the police academy doesn't yet know how many departments will send officers.

Concord plans to enroll six officers, police Chief John Duval said yesterday. 'We're trying to manage our resources to do it with as little cost as possible,' he said. 'We hope to bring back the information and share it. . . . It's a building-block approach that we're taking to it.'

In Pittsfield, Chief Robert Wharem, who is also the president of the police chiefs association, said he plans to send a number of his officers.

With budget cuts affecting police departments across the state, 'there's a need for us to continue and enhance our training,' Wharem said. 'Unfortunately the area of mental health doesn't have any boundaries as to how big a community is.'

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)