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Could mental health experts prevent Phoenix officer-involved shootings?

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — The head of the Phoenix Police Department wants to involve mental health professionals in responding to emergency calls after last year’s spike in officer-involved shootings.

Chief Jeri Williams said taking a more balanced approach when responding to certain emergency calls could reduce the likelihood that shots will be fired when police show up on the scene.

“I know for a fact people call 911 when they’re having the worst day of their life,” Williams told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes on Monday.

“We’re usually the fallback person, but why not give you resources and options? I think people (call 911) because that’s the only number they know. So we can take those calls, but we want to divert those calls.”

The department has been searching for solutions to decrease the number of officer-involved shootings after a record 44 were recorded last year. The department averaged 21 officer-involved shootings from 2009 to 2017.

An independent report released Friday did not find major issues with the department’s training and policies but offered nine recommendations for improvement.

The police chief said she would like to embed a mental health professional with her officers in order to appropriately respond to those calls.

“What this looks like in a tangible sense to me is a mental health professional riding in the car with one of our two crisis intervention team squads or, take it a step further, riding in a patrol car with our patrol officers, sitting in our communication centers, diverting calls from law enforcement that can go somewhere else.”

Williams said she wants to create a dynamic where calls are being directed to appropriate resources, even if they have to be directed outside of the law enforcement community.

“There are some times where we should not be responding to these mental health calls, so why not take that out of the equation,” Williams said, “give the mental health professionals deal with that, give my officers time to deal with police work.”

“I’m excited about the challenge for us to create a system, not just with the police department, but with the community, the behavioral health community, other law enforcement agencies, that’s going to create a response that’s going to be better in the end for law enforcement and for the community.”

“What this looks like in a tangible sense to me is a mental health professional riding in the car with one of our two crisis intervention team squads,” Williams said.

“Or, take it a step further, riding in a patrol car with our patrol officers, sitting in our communication centers, diverting calls from law enforcement that can go somewhere else.”

“I’m trying to create the dynamic where I’m getting the right calls and the right people for the right reasons. There are some times where we should not be responding to these mental health calls, so why not take that out of the equation, give the mental health professionals deal with that, give my officers time to deal with police work.”

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