Rhode Island law already mandated training for law enforcement officers on hate crimes, domestic violence, and criminal gang activity when the year began. In August, the list grew with the addition of training on mental health and substance abuse emergencies.
That’s when Gov. Gina Raimondo signed into law legislation passed by the General Assembly and sponsored by Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) and Sen. Stephen R. Archambault (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) directing the Police Office Commission on Standards and Training to set mandatory training standards on how to identify and interact with victims, witnesses or suspects with mental health or substance use disorders.
Rhode Island’s three police academies – the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy, attended by recruit officers from 38 of the state’s 39 municipalities, the Providence Police Training Academy and the Rhode Island State Police Training Academy – expose recruits to the subject of responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis.
But the number of hours of classroom time varied and there was no uniform curriculum between the three academies, according to Joseph Coffey, who retired as a captain after 20 years on the Warwick Police Department in June.
He was an instructor at the municipal academy for nine years and is now a training consultant.
Coffey helped develop Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety, an eight-hour course certified by the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH), and conducted training for police recruits with certified co-instructors who were also clinical social workers from Gateway Healthcare.
Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety now serves as the common curriculum for all the state’s police officer recruits and in-service trainees.
The course is a specialized version of the NCBH national program that has taught more than 500,000 people how to recognize when someone may be experiencing a mental health or substance use problem and encourage them to get help.
The public safety version has been taught to more than 10,000 police, first responders, 911 dispatchers, corrections officers, parole and probation professionals across the U.S.
According to reports, an estimated 10 percent of a police officer’s time involves situations with people experiencing mental illness and the police are often the first to be called to manage such a person in a time of crisis.
The course covers the warning signs of mental health problems and effective response options to safely de-escalate incidents.
“Hands in pockets is a good example,” Coffey said. “If the person has their hands in their pockets, typically an officer wants to say ‘Hey, get your hands out of your pockets. Get your hands out of your pockets.’ If the person says no, you think it’s disrespectful. Then officers are trained to escalate when a person doesn’t respond to your verbal commands.”
But Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety covers why a person might not hear or understand a uniformed officer barking a command at them, Coffey said.
Course participants learn what to look for when making initial assessments of surroundings and recognizing opportunities to get more information from dispatchers or witnesses prior to approaching a subject.
“When you walk up to the person and maybe their hands are in their pockets, maybe the best thing to do is not just walk up to them and grab them by the arm,” Coffey said. “You can use gestures. You can take your hands and open your hands up and say, ‘Show me your hands.’ Mention the word safe. ‘I’m here to keep you safe.’ There are things you can say to them before to get them to comply with taking their hands out of their pockets.”
One in four people with mental disorders have police arrest histories, and one in 10 individuals have police involved in their pathway to mental health care, according to a systematic review published online last April in Psychiatric Services.
Coffey said the Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety also covers important details for police to include in their communication with health care providers, such as when they bring someone to a hospital emergency room.
The Rhode Island Police Officers Commission on Standards and Training (POST) was scheduled to review the new law at its next meeting Aug. 18 to ensure that the training already being given recruits is in compliance and develop guidelines for in-service training of sworn officers.
“I believe the training is absolutely necessary because unfortunately more and more of the calls we are responding to involve individuals suffering from mental illness,” said POST Chairman and Middletown Police Chief Anthony Pesare.
“The academies and the chiefs have been very aware of this issue and are addressing the issue appropriately and the new legislation validates our efforts.”