TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is revamping the training program that teaches deputies how to handle people in the throes of a mental health crisis.
The biggest change: The agency's 40-hour crisis intervention training is no longer voluntary for patrol and detention deputies. Now it's mandatory training for the entire force of about 2,400 sworn deputies.
The program's curriculum will also be updated with the help of local mental health experts, said Sheriff Chad Chronister, to ensure the new training is relevant to the situations that deputies are dealing with on the streets and in the jail.
The rationale for the changes lies in the large number of calls involving people with mental health issues that his agency must deal with, he said.
"I firmly believe that's law enforcement's biggest hurdle moving forward," Chronister said. "I think where we can make a lot of improvement is with de-escalation, and part of the de-escalation is deputies being more familiar with, and able to identify, individuals in crisis."
The sheriff pointed to national data that shows mental health crises are often a factor in officer-involved shootings.
"If we can decrease the deployment of any type of use of force by employing these new best practices techniques, that's a responsibility we have to the population we serve," he said.
Crisis intervention training teaches officers how to recognize signs and symptoms of specific mental health illnesses and how to verbally and, if necessary, physically de-escalate situations without using deadly force when possible. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement requires all police agencies in the state to offer some form of crisis training.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office already offers a custom-tailored, 40-hour program to any deputy willing to take part. About 1,640 sworn personnel members have already taken that course. Now the entire force — including those who already underwent the old training — will be required to take the new course.
The old curriculum included case studies from across the nation. The new program will include cases from the Tampa Bay area, to give deputies examples of what their colleagues in the region have experienced. The curriculum will also put a larger focus on military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and drug-induced mental health episodes.
The revised program is the result of a collaboration with Hillsborough's State Attorney and Public Defender offices and local service providers lending their expertise: the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, NaphCare, the Northside Behavioral Crisis Center, the Florida Mental Health Institute and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Crisis Center of Tampa Bay vice president for client services Sunny Hall praised the decision to make the more intensive training mandatory.
"To put officers in a situation where they're not prepared is dangerous for everybody, including the officer," she said. "Sheriff Chronister has said many times that you can't arrest your way out of mental health problems and I'm glad to see he's walking the talk."
Public Defender Julianne Holt also praised the sheriff's new policy, calling it another way to help "decriminalize mental illness." Chronister offered Holt's office two of the 40 hours of training time, and she said her office will use their time to stress the need for deputies to communicate with people in distress, and their loved ones who called law enforcement for help.
"Every time we are involved in cases where something might have gone wrong on either the law enforcement side or our clients' side, it's because there wasn't full communication of the actual situation," Holt said.
"Mental illness presents one of the greatest challenges in the criminal justice system," State Attorney Andrew Warren said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "Crisis Intervention Training improves how law enforcement handles emergency situations involving mental health. This specialized training is a critical to building a safer, stronger community."
The Sheriff's Office also plans to open up the training to other law enforcement agencies starting this summer.
Tampa Bay area agencies take a variety of approaches to crisis training.
The Tampa Police Department requires four hours of crisis intervention training and offers a 40-hour program on a voluntary basis.
In Pinellas, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's goal is for every patrol and detention deputy to attend a 40-hour training program offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as NAMI, said Cpl. Jessica Mackesy. She said that's been a gradual process because the program is only offered three times a year, and each Pinellas law enforcement agency gets a limited number of slots in each session. In the meantime, personnel who haven't taken the 40-hour training are required to take an 8-hour "mental health first aid" training course.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway also wants all of his officers to take the alliance's training and is working toward that goal, said department spokeswoman Sandra Bentil.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office offers a voluntary 40-hour training program for patrol and detention deputies. Lt. Toni Roach said about 45 percent of patrol deputies are certified in that program and officials hope to train the entire force within the next year or two.
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.