Johnson Co law enforcement learns how to interact with mentally ill in crisis situations

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- Law enforcement are learning some alternatives for handling people experiencing substance abuse or mental health issues.

Right now these people will go to jail or to the hospital, but that may not be the right place for them to go. We told you about a year ago that the Johnson County Sheriff's Office was sending members to San Antonio, Texas. They were learning about a campus in that city, helping people through detox and psychiatric care as well as transitional services for the homeless. It's helped save more than 50 million dollars by keeping people out of county jails, emergency rooms and courtrooms. Johnson County is hoping to create a campus like this.

"Whenever you train officers to be able to identify mental crises and de-escalate them without force everybody wins," said Captain Mark Bullock with the University of Iowa Police Department.

That's the logic behind this first session of Crisis Intervention Training in Johnson County. CIT is more about deescalating situations before they get out of hand. Scott Stevens is a domestic violence investigator with the Iowa City Police Department and he said he's learning new skills.

"Being able to see and learn about the things that I've been doing on a regular basis and maybe even improving on those things so that I can do what I do better and bring a better service to the community" said Stevens.

With all the budget cuts going on these days, some are concerned these kind of training curriculums could end.

"If they were to cut that funding obviously it's going to bring down the number of people that can attend and the people that can instruct it" said Brandon Richmond with the Johnson County Sheriff's Office.

Officers said crisis intervention training is good for all law enforcement agencies but it also sends a positive message to the community.

"I think it shows that we care. I think it shows that we're not waiting for a critical incident to identify better ways to communicate with our entire population" said Bullock.

Doctors said this will help them in the end.

"We do feel that possibly fewer patients will come to the emergency department suffering mental health crises and of the ones that are brought there, they're brought in a calmer, more supported fashion" said Dr. Azeemuddin Ahmed with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Officers said having better communication skills means they won't have to use force, which in turn, means fewer situations ending with a trip to the emergency room.

"I think it's a huge positive for our community that we can do more to stop plugging up the emergency rooms. The emergency rooms are for people with chronic emergencies. If we can not plug them up I think that's great" said Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek.

The training lasts all week and there will be two more sessions later this year.