CENTRAL ILLINOIS

Police officers walk into unknown situations daily, more and more of which have a mental health component to them.

And area officers are now receiving more training in dealing with such situations – and will continue to pick up added knowledge at least once every three years under a new state law.

The legislation requires all officers and deputies in the state to complete an eight-hour mental health training class triennially.

Area officials in the Pekin and Peoria area are ahead of the curve on that, says Michael Oyer, the director of the Central Illinois Police Training Unit.

Of the roughly 2,000 sworn officers of the law in the region, between 400 and 500 have taken that course or a more advanced one, Oyer said. Another 35 to 40 are signed up for a forthcoming December course at the facility housed on the Peoria campus of Illinois Central College, and another 100 or so are likely to take an online version.

The legislation got its start after the suicide of a 19-year-old man outside Kankakee. Sam Myers’ family worked with state lawmakers to pass Sam’s Law, which requires eight hours of training on basic mental health issues.

That covers ground from the history of mental health systems to the impact on law enforcement, facts and myths about mental illness, the stigma associated with it and details about the kinds of mental illness officers might encounter, including symptoms, said Jennifer Wooldridge, who directs special projects and coordinates Crisis Intervention Team work for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.

The course also addresses how officers can best deal with those situations.

“Once you recognize the signs, how do you respond? Verbal tactics and all of that,” including de-escalation techniques, said John Keigher, the attorney for ILETSB.

A report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority estimates that “as many as 10 percent of police contacts include individuals with mental health conditions.”

Between addiction issues and other mental health concerns, “depending on the neighborhood you’re in, a fairly significant percentage of calls made by police have a mental health issue behind them,” agrees John Schladweiler, the board president for the state’s organization of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Hence the benefit of the basic-level training to area departments.

“When a guy that’s been trained is on patrol and he comes across somebody he thinks is having mental health issues, it’ll be advantageous for him to know whether this guy needs to go to jail, or whether he needs to call (the Emergency Response Service at the Human Service Center in Peoria),” Washington Police Chief Mike McCoy said.

“Obviously any training officers have is going to benefit them in the situation,” Pekin Police Department spokeswoman Officer Billie Ingles agreed, saying Pekin Chief John Dossey plans to send more officers to the forthcoming December basic mental health course in Peoria.

In McCoy’s earlier days as a patrol officer, incidents with someone showing signs of mental illness usually resulted in an individual being taken to Zeller Mental Health Center, but that shuttered early this century.

“When they closed Zeller, now the jails are the dumping grounds,” said McCoy, a former Peoria County sheriff, who during his tenure in that post repeatedly spoke about his concerns that jails were increasingly housing the mentally ill at a cost to taxpayers – especially if the underlying conditions weren’t treated and the people were re-arrested.

That concern saw Peoria County beginning efforts at the jail to work with detainees who have mental illnesses.

Tazewell County likewise has grappled with those challenges at its jail, which, like many other facilities, uses a psychologist. But officials there are also consulting with psychologists and psychiatrists online via Skype to provide additional services, Chief Deputy Jeff Lower says.

Lower, who is unopposed to take over in December as sheriff, said he’s long been aware of the need for training, both professionally and because his wife has a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

“(Training) definitely translates into less work down the line,” he said of the deputy force. “If we can get people help, get them the services they need, they’re less likely to be back in jail; we’re less likely to have to deal with them again.”

The only complaint Oyer has received so far about the basic course is from an attendee who wanted a longer course. That’s available.

Crisis Intervention Training is a week-long course that’s already on the books that addresses mental health as well as other crisis situations. After a few years with little interest, Oyer said that within the last two years “our classes are full any time we offer it.”

Its completion also counts toward the every-three-years requirement, he said. Statewide, about 20 percent of the 35,000 to 37,000 sworn officers have received that training, Keigher said. More than 50 CIT courses were offered statewide this year.

“In the 15 years we’ve done those, it’s just increased in popularity every year,” he said. “In some regions, it registers out within moments of being offered.”

The mandate for mental health training does not apply to jailers, Keigher said, but he noted that some correctional officers have gone through the more intensive CIT course. That’s been popular enough that they’re planning a specific CIT course aimed at corrections.

Such programs have been offered for Illinois Department of Corrections employees with help from NAMI, Schladweiler said. IDOC staff noted afterward a reduction in the number of incidents and issues seen in state prisons, he said.

He sees a benefit to expanding training like that into county jails.

Cost can be a concern even for basic-level classes, nearly all departments agree, if only because then they have to back-fill their staffing for the day, which can lead to overtime costs.

But, at the end of that training, Oyer says officers have “a very good starting toolbox” for what they might face when encountering the mentally ill.