By Senator Lena C. Taylor
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Denzel Washington’s movie “Training Day.” Just let that marinate for a minute. The movie followed Washington’s character, a highly decorated narcotics detective, as he spent a day assessing and training an officer who was up for a promotion. In those 24 hours, every irrational, dangerous and illegal thing you can imagine was done by Washington’s character. The movie was a huge box office hit, but the training left a whole lot to be desired.
In the real world, police officers are confronted with a number of issues that they are frequently not equipped to handle. Politicians, police officers, community leaders and members can debate the factors that have changed the nature of policing. However, local governments, police departments and residents have found something that they can agree on: officers come into contact with crisis situations every day.
While there is adequate training to prepare them for some of these circumstances, when it comes to issues of mental health, substance abuse, depression, suicide and other questionable situations, their law enforcement training may have not been sufficient.
When all goes well, these situations can be diffused quickly and safely for the involved citizen and the law enforcement officer. When it goes wrong, we have Dontre Hamilton, a Milwaukee resident with mental health issues, being shot 14 times and killed by a Milwaukee police officer, after he was found sleeping in a public park.
As a part of policing reform bills that have been recently introduced, SB 332 is a bill that seeks to address these concerns. The bill requires officers to complete four hours of crisis training every two years. We need to do more, but this is a start to reduce risk for everyone involved.
Approximately 1,000 people in the United States were fatally shot by police officers during 2018, and people with mental illness were involved in approximately 25% of those fatalities, according to an article that appeared in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
Police and sheriff departments across the country have recognized that their officers need to be better equipped and have sought specialized training to deal with an array of crisis issues. Whether de-escalation training, active listening skills, the ability to recognize a mental health crisis and work with community partners to diffuse situations, etc., many law enforcement agencies require as many as 40 hours of crisis training. Better training will hopefully mean better results.
There are also many benefits beyond safety, that include cost savings in comparing incarceration to referrals to appropriate alternative services. A typical annual year in a correctional facility can average about $30,000, while a community based mental health treatment runs about $10,000 per year. For years we have heard phrases like “we’re getting smarter on crime,” it’s about time we do the same for policing. We have to because unlike a movie, we can’t change endings with the stroke of a pen. There can be deadly consequences to getting a crisis wrong.