Training Police
12:55 pm
Tue May 27, 2014

More Police Officers to Get Mental Health Training

"The whole point is to decriminalize mental health issues."
Edward Yergeau

Edward Yergeau, a patrol sergeant with the Hartford Police Department, has seen how changing attitudes about mental health has actually changed outcomes.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

"Ten years ago," Yergeau said, "you either arrested a person, or threw them in the ambulance, and you were done with them. That was it." 

That doesn't happen anymore, Yergeau said. "We try to make sure that doesn't happen," he said. "That's one of my jobs as a supervisor: show up on these calls, and make sure not only does the person get the proper treatment, but the families are also informed of what's going on, and why we're doing what we're doing."

I interviewed Yergeau a few weeks ago, just as the state was considering a bill to add money to the budget to include some mental health training for all new state and local police. That bill eventually passed, and comes with $50,000 to get things started. The idea is to keep those living with mental illness out of jail.

Pat Rehmer, Commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Pat Rehmer, Commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Credit State of Connecticut

Pat Rehmer, the state's commissioner of mental health and addiction services, called the training part of essential preparation for officers. "It's really basic training for police officers related to how to interact with and handle incidents involving any individual that's affected with a behavioral health disorder or a serious mental illness," she said in a recent interview.  

The goal with the funding is to train as many officers as possible in mental health. Rehmer said, "The ability to deescalate situations, and [avoid] bad outcomes, is really what we're trying to do, and what we think has worked pretty successfully."

Theresa Velez, one of the patrol officers who works for Yergeau, said that being trained in mental health can mean not arresting someone you otherwise would. It means taking the longer view, and being empathetic.

"Be able to touch people, hug people sometimes," Velez said. "You're dealing with family members. A lot of times, these family members here do not understand what these loved ones are suffering from. They don't understand the illness. They're not educated about it. Sometimes they don't want to know."

Yergeau agreed. "It takes a lot more of the officer's training," he said. "It takes a lot more of his thinking. We try to get officers who can talk to people. That's one of the key things -- talk to people. Not only that, but to be able to have the vision to see beyond what's immediately present... The whole point is to decriminalize mental health issues. We don't want to put people in jail who have mental health issues. We want to see that they get treated. We want to see that they get the proper help that they deserve."

Credit Stockbyte / Thinkstock

Hartford police also have a special asset they can deploy when needed: Barry Skoletsky. He's not a police officer; he's a state social worker with a police radio who shows up at as many mental health calls as he and his team can.

"When I hear a 10-44 call -- a psychiatric call -- I go out immediately," Skoletsky said, "no matter what it is. We go out, and do the evaluation, and we try to make the decision as to whether the person needs to be sent to the emergency room for further evaluation. If they don't, [we] try to get them hooked up into further services, if they're interested."

Skoletsky's other role is training new police recruits in Hartford. "You try, as much as you can," he said, "to keep people out of the hospital if you can, and get them involved in treatment. Sometimes, if you can keep people out of the hospital, and really work with them, and engage them, that's very, very helpful."

The new state law mandating the new mental health training for police goes into effect on October 1.