TAMPA — Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan started the news conference with two big numbers.
So far this year, Tampa police officers have responded to more than 5,200 calls involving a person in the throes of some sort of mental health crisis. In the same period, officers have taken about 2,500 people into protective custody under the state’s Baker Act.
Dugan pointed to those statistics Tuesday as he announced a new mental health training program for his officers and 911 dispatchers.
“There is, in my opinion, a crisis going in our society and my concern is not enough people are concerned about it," Dugan said.
All sworn officers —currently numbering about 950 including academy recruits — will now receive 40 hours of training. Up to now, officers received up to 20 hours. New recruits will spend an additional week at the police academy for the training.
The program’s curriculum includes training and material provided by service providers in the area such as the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and Gracepoint. Topics include how some drugs can produce effects that mimic mental illness, the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and situational training on how to handle a potential “suicide by cop” situation.
“It’s about us training our officers to do everything they possibly can to de-escalate a situation and use deadly force as a last resort in every situation,” Dugan said.
A portion of the training will include sessions with experts and family members who can offer real-life perspective.
The department’s roughly 100 employees in its communications bureau will receive 20 hours of training to improve their ability to handle a crisis over the phone, develop active listening skills and better understand trauma.
Dugan said one of the main goals is to teach dispatchers how to triage calls and seek assistance from service providers and better recognize when sending a uniformed officer might be unnecessary or even agitate a situation.
“Working with our partners, maybe we can divert some of these calls to experts in the mental health field as opposed to sending police officers,” he said. “But the ultimate goal is when we do send a police officer, they’re going to be better trained, they’re going to be more empathetic, compassionate and aware of what was going on.”
The training for dispatchers will help improve their skills in a society that uses 911 for a wide range of needs, said Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center.
“We’re very excited to be able to provide some additional support, some additional tools to help our 911 dispatchers to be able to send out the different types of services that might be available for these individuals," Reynolds said.
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The training will incorporate some material developed for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which recently updated its mental health crisis training with support from the Crisis Center and other local providers. Sheriff Chad Chronister announced in June that the 40-hour training is now mandatory for his entire force of about 2,400 sworn deputies. Since then, 162 deputies and 52 cadets have completed the training, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Other local agencies take a variety of approaches to crisis training.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s goal is for every patrol and detention deputy to attend a 40-hour training program offered by the Pinellas County Crisis Intervention Team, a spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year this year. Personnel who haven’t yet 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 Pinellas CIT training. About 1 in 5 have to date, said Yolanda Fernandez, a department spokeswoman.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office offers a voluntary 40-hour training program for patrol and detention deputies. More than half of patrol deputies are certified in that program and officials hope to train the entire force within the next year or two, said sheriff’s Lt. Toni Roach.
The Tampa Police Department is aiming to have all its officers and dispatchers trained by June 1.
“There are so many individuals in our community who are in crisis,” Mayor Jane Castor said. “We we need know how to serve that aspect of our community in the best way possible, and it can’t just be left to the police officers. This is a community-wide issue."