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Ride along with Phoenix Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team

PHOENIX — One in four people suffer from a mental health condition.

The Phoenix Police Department has a dedicated team that goes beyond the duties of law enforcement to better assist people suffering from a mental health crisis.

The Crisis Intervention Team is made up of 11 detectives and two sergeants who work in the field.

The team serves petitions filed from judges, hospitals, doctors, sometimes even family or friends of someone suffering. They arrive at the home or workplace of the person in crisis to take them to mental health treatment.

With over a decade on the Phoenix Police Department, Sgt. Gates Townsend is one of the leaders of the Crisis Intervention Team.

“We are not trained as behavioral health professionals, counselors, or doctors,” Townsend told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

“We have a lot of training in it and understanding in it and how to communicate it, but our goal is to deescalate the situation and get them to the proper resources.”

One detective serves as the training coordinator, cultivating relationships with behavioral health partners.

Sabrina Taylor is Phoenix police’s training coordinator. She told KTAR News, “It brings together as many pieces of the community as you can get. The police, the behavioral health system, hopefully family, and advocates.”

During a recent behind-the-scenes look as to what goes into the training, Taylor illustrated how difficult it can be to identify if someone has a mental health condition to begin with.

“In these situations, the good thing about all these cognitive impairments is generally the recipe is the same,” Taylor said. “One question at a time, speak slow and listen.”

The team is designed to better address mental health calls. When dispatchers receive a call, they know if a patrol officer will call for back up or if the call can be intercepted by the team or another community outreach program.

During KTAR News‘ exclusive ride along, we saw calls that dealt with drug abuse, a man who did not trust the police and a veteran who was making suicidal statements.

Detective Jason Toth with the Crisis Intervention Team displayed examples of patience and how the team is trained to approach the calls while making a person in crisis comfortable.

Toth provided himself as a resource to the family members of the person who was taken into mental health facilities to receive care during their crisis. He would give them his business card and tell them he is available at any time to explain the process to them and help them during the situation.

The department has implemented mental health training in their police academies in the last year and a half in an attempt to better address police response to mental health calls.

There are approximately 530 Crisis Intervention Team-trained police officers in various positions and ranks in the department, out of the more than 3,000 officers on the force. There are almost 300 in patrol in a first responder function.

After the highly anticipated officer involved shooting report following a record year for officer-involved shootings, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams told the Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes Show about her hope for her department and their response to mental health calls.

“What this looks like in a tangible sense to me, is a mental health professional team 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.”

Williams believes that calls that can be diverted need to go somewhere else.

“I am trying to create the dynamic where I am getting the right calls and the right people for the right reasons,” she said.

“There are some times where we should not be responding to these mental health calls. So why not take that out of the equation? Have the mental health professionals deal with that and have my officers deal with police work.”

Townsend explained to KTAR News how thorough the Crisis Intervention Team’s training is. They go beyond simply picking someone up from their home and taking them to a facility to receive court ordered mental health treatment.

“The first thing we do is let them know they are not in trouble. A lot of people, when they see the police, they think they are going to jail or think they are in criminal trouble. We let them know why we are here and hopefully try to calm them down,” Townsend said.

When asked if people suffering from a mental health condition are more violent, Townsend disputed the statement. “I would not say they are more violent, they are just misunderstood.”

“That’s why we [the Crisis Intervention Team] have the training we do. So if we someone pacing or tapping their foot, we know and understand that is a coping mechanism for something they are dealing with, rather someone else may look at it differently,” Townsend added.

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