DA announces funding for mental health police training

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego County District Attorney's Office announced $1.5 million in funding Tuesday to go toward increased police training on interacting with individuals suffering from mental illnesses.

The initiative seeks to offer enhanced training to all police officers in the county within the next three years, providing strategies for how best to recognize the signs of mental illness or substance abuse when responding to emergency calls.

Officers already receive training regarding mental health issues in the police academy, but Escondido Police Chief Craig Carter said the new training curriculum offers "more tools to cope with those in crisis while we're in the field." Officials hope the new curriculum -- the culmination of a year-long collaboration involving more than 200 experts on mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice issues -- will reduce to need for officers to use deadly force in the field.

The new training includes classes led by members of the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team -- or PERT -- who often assist police officers responding to emergency calls related to mental health crises.

The funding will also go toward use of the MILO Range Theater, a video simulation that places officers in a variety of situations replicating potential interactions with subjects suffering from mental illnesses.

In addition, a 911 Mental Health checklist has been created to give family members calling 911 an opportunity to inform police dispatchers of a loved one's mental health issues, access to weapons and other important information, which "will allow officers to be more prepared before they arrive on scene," according to District Attorney Summer Stephan.

The checklist, available on printed flyers, will be distributed to psychiatric hospitals, jails, police agencies and will soon be available on a free phone app.

Dispatchers will also be trained to inquire further on mental health related issues when taking 911 calls.

According to Stephan, county law enforcement responded to more than 53,000 calls for service last year for people with mental health issues. Subjects with mental health or substance abuse issues also accounted for 79% of the county's officer-involved shootings over the past 25 years, she said, while around 30% of county jail inmates receive medication for mental health disorders.

"Individuals in San Diego County facing mental health issues frequently come in contact with law enforcement and with our criminal justice system," Stephan said. "Too often, the outcome falls short of helping people who face those challenges."

The recommendations that led to the new funding are included in a 76- page report released Tuesday, titled "Blueprint for Mental Health Reform: A Strategic New Approach Addressing the Intersection of Mental Health, Homelessness and Criminal Justice in San Diego County."

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