The Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice recently heard testimony on a bill aimed at mandating the amount of law enforcement officers in each sector or region who are trained to respond to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. The bill LD 534, “An Act to Increase Crisis Intervention Training in the State,” requires that at least 20 percent of law enforcement officers in a municipal police department and in a county sheriff’s office must complete the Memphis model of crisis intervention training.

The crisis intervention training is a 40-hour training coordinated by National Alliance for Mental Illness Maine in collaboration with local mental health and substance abuse providers. Crisis intervention training intends to create a relationship and alliance among law enforcement, mental health provider agencies and the individuals and families affected by mental illness.

Around 10 percent of the calls law enforcement officers respond to nationally involve an individual experiencing a mental health crisis. This means that one out of 10 times a police officer responds to a call, the officer has an interaction with a person in mental health crisis. According to the Maine attorney general’s office, 42 percent of people shot by law enforcement officers since 2000 were individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Of those 58 percent later died from their injuries.

As a mental health provider in Maine and a child of a parent who works in law enforcement, I’m both concerned for the individual in crisis and the law enforcement officer who is responding to the call. Law enforcement professionals already have access to a wide variety of tools to ensure the safety of the communities they serve, and LD 534 aims to provide additional and crucial tools to aid officers when they encounter a community member who is experiencing a mental health episode.

The mandated training that they will receive if this bill becomes law will provide valuable insight into how to best approach, manage and ultimately assist the people whom they are already encountering on a regular basis.

It would be foolish to ask law enforcement to venture out into the field without their handcuffs or flashlights, but by not providing them with this training we are doing just that. Having a department that is aware and prepared to deal with the unique challenges that can arise from dealing with a person in the midst of a mental health crisis offers immeasurable benefits to the community and to the law enforcement professionals themselves.

A successful community policing effort requires collaboration across agencies and organizations. Another key benefit of LD 534 is the collaborative practices it establishes between local law enforcement and the mental health practitioner who service the same population. The initial training establishes a connection between law enforcement and a network of mental health resources in the form of psychiatrists, clinicians and case managers. The dialogue established during these trainings not only provides insight and challenges pre-existing biases, it serves to forge connections and encourage future discourse.

Strengthening this working relationship makes everyone more informed and therefore safer. The truest measure of LD 534’s success will be when both law enforcement professionals and mental health practitioners can freely call upon each other to assist, support and provide safe resolution in situations involving mental health crises.

I was fortunate to attend one of the crisis intervention training sessions, and I was very impressed with what I saw. The law enforcement officers were eager to ask questions about the best methods for de-escalation and how to encourage compliance. It was clear to me that they were open to suggestions and willing to accept methods that were proven to be effective. I left the session convinced that everyone in the room had benefited from the training and the departments statewide would experience similar success if given the opportunity that LD 534 would provide.

Danielle Walsh of Morrill is a social worker practicing in the midcoast. She will soon graduate from the University of Maine with her master’s degree in social work.