Police officers across the country and in the Central Valley have been under increasing scrutiny and pressure for how they deal with civilians in the field. At the same time, some departments are acknowledging that their role is morphing into one that is just as concerned with identifying and helping people who might be suffering from a mental illness as it is enforcing the law. Fresno’s Police Chief Jerry Dyer says he is making changes within his force in an attempt to separate committed criminals from people who need a softer form of help. Valley Public Radio’s Jeffrey Hess spoke with Dyer about what he has learned over the last couple years and what changes he hopes to make at FPD.
What changes are going to be coming to the department?
There are two things that are happening simultaneously. Number one is we made the commitment to provide crisis intervention training, which is 40 hours, to every single uniformed officer in the Fresno Police Department. To date, we have just over 200 police officers that have been provided that crisis intervention training. That training not only focuses on identifying what type of mental health issues an individual may be suffering from but also de-escalation skills. Making sure that we are doing everything in our power, as officers, to not escalate a situation to where force may have to be used. But to do everything in our power to de-escalate that situation. Then be able to get that individual into some type of mental health services.
The second part of it is utilizing a group of four officers and one Sergeant to partner with Behavioral Health of Fresno County in placing our police officers and a mental health clinician in a car together and responding to the calls that are out there that involve somebody in crisis.
And the other part of it is also proactively identifying those individuals who are the consumers of a lot of our emergency services. Whether that is the police department, American Ambulance, the jail, the hospitals, whatever it is. And making sure they are getting the focused attention that prevents those repeat calls for service.
What is going to be different about the training of the core group of officers get versus the entire force?
Those particular officers will have the 40 hours of training plus additional training provided to them. They are not going to be wearing a police uniform. They are going to be wearing different attire. We often times see that sometimes the uniform can serve to escalate a situation or create fear in the part of the individual that we are dealing with who has mental health issues. And so, the goal is to insert those individuals, those officers, with that training with the time on their hands to be able to effectively deal with that call.
Unfortunately, our police officers have a lot of police calls that they respond to on a daily basis. And although we encourage them to take as much time as they need to handle these calls, the reality is they understand the need to get back into service, at some point in time, so they can handle the next call that is holding.
These officers that are assigned to the crisis intervention team, will have all the time that they need, to, along with the mental health clinician, to effectively deal with those individuals. And to make sure they are identifying what those needs are and getting them in touch with the right services.
But the department responds to more than 20,000 mental health calls a year, is four officers enough?
In a 12 month period, our officers handled just under 27,000 calls where there was a person in crisis. Now sometimes that person in crisis does have mental health (issues). Sometimes they have some other emotional issues or alcohol and drug (use). But sometimes it is hard to distinguish.
We do know that having these officers proactively, on the front end, focus on those individuals that are the most frequent consumers of those types of calls that we are going to reduce repeat calls for service.
The second thing is, yes were are not going to be able to respond to all the ones that we would like to. But this is more of a pilot project and a beginning point. We are going to see how effective it is, which I know it to be effective, and then expand beyond that.
Uniforms can escalate a situation but they also signal that someone is acting in an official capacity. How will these officers be dressed?
The police officers assigned to the crisis intervention team will be wearing, maybe, a polo shirt that identifies them as a police officer. With some type of pants that are not police related. But they are really going to be that second responder. They won’t be the first responder. There will still be a police officer respond to the scene. And then there will be a request made for the crisis intervention team.
How do you sort out criminal calls versus a mental health emergency call?
We generally know who the individuals are. Not just the address, but who the individuals are that are frequent consumers of emergency services. Those are the people that often times are committed under the welfare and institution code. They are a danger to themselves or others. They are the people that we end up having transported by American Ambulance to the hospital or to Exodus. They are often times are the ones who are being booked into Fresno County Jail because they have been involved in criminal activity.
The goal is to identify those people who are suffering from mental health that find themselves into the criminal justice system.
We know that there are certain people who just have an intent to commit a crime. They are going to do it for whatever motivation. There are other people out there that we recognize that commit crime as a result of them suffering from some type of mental health disorder. Those are the people we want to focus on.
Why the change now?
I think what we have seen is a growing number of calls involving people suffering from mental health. It has escalated over the last several years. I don’t know if that is a result of what we went through in the recession. Maybe services were cut back. Maybe more people utilizing methamphetamine. Whatever the case is, we know the numbers are growing and that what we are currently doing is not having the desired effect that we would like.
Which is why we are partnering now with behavioral health. They are going to be ramping up their services. We are going to be increasing our efforts. And I believe together we are going to be a force multiplier in terms of how we are able to impact those people on our streets who are suffering from mental health issues.