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Officers take specialized training for mental illness
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McMinnville Police Department officers are being trained to handle crisis situations with the mentally ill.

Police Chief Bryan Denton said it became evident that even though officers had basic skills dealing with the mentally ill, specialized training was needed to recognize when individuals were suffering from mental illness, how to handle those situations, and if that person needs to be somewhere other than jail.

“We’ve always had folks – a couple – who we get calls about,” said Denton. “Over the years, it has just become more and more and more. Deputy Chief Mike Lane came to me one day and said, ‘Something is going on here. Officers are at the hospital at least two to three times a week with folks. We’re sending them to jail, and I don’t think that’s where they need to be.’”

Called Crisis Intervention Team training, the program started in Memphis and is now being taught to law enforcement officers across the country and internationally. It strives to improve safety, for both the officer and the individual, by offering education on how to recognize signs that someone is in a mental health crisis, how to deescalate the situation, and urges them to work with mental health professionals to offer the person treatment over jail.

“This ties in with what we are trying to do with the jail,” said Denton. “We’re trying to keep the jail’s population down as much as we can. There are estimates that up to 25 percent of those people should probably be somewhere else. By using what they’ve learned in this program, my officers are better equipped to deal with these situations. We try to figure out what’s best for the person, and it is not always incarceration.”

Officers work closely with CHEER Mental Health.

Training is offered by Kim Rush, senior director of strategic partnerships, who has been working closely with McMinnville Police Department for several years.

“We provide a 40-hour training, Monday thru Friday,” she said. “The first day is hard on the officers because it is all mental health. What are the signs and symptoms of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia? What are the signs and symptoms of someone diagnosed with bipolar? What does a traumatic brain injury in a veteran look like?”

Day two is field trips.

“I take them to the state mental health hospital in Nashville. We go to the support centers,” said Rush.

The last three days include discussion, presentations, and real-life scenarios. 

McMinnville PD’s effort has led to a collaborative community partnership that now involves Warren County Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis, Circuit Court Judge Bart Stanley, General Sessions Judge Bill Locke, Public Defender John Partin, First United Methodist Church, CHEER Mental Health, and Saint Thomas River Park Hospital. 

The group has a long-term goal to establish a Mental Health Court in Warren County. Mental health courts link offenders who would ordinarily be prison-bound to long-term, community-based treatment. 

Denton says the court would be similar to Adult Recovery Court, but its focus would be on offenders with mental illness rather than substance abuse issues.