The greatest tool at a police officer’s disposal isn’t always a firearm or a pair of handcuffs. Sometimes, it is a kind word of reassurance.
That’s a skill that Waxahachie Police Sgt. Josh Oliver learned from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement during its mental health officer certification program that he volunteered for four years ago.
“The police department is the first place a family is going to turn to get some help,” Oliver stated. “I probably use my training twice a week.”
Oliver is one of five officers in the Waxahachie Police Department currently certified by the program. The 40-hour weeklong course trains officers on how to handle situations in the field, whether those involve a mentally ill person or a person going through a crisis.
“The mental health aspect of police work is something I’ve always been passionate about,” Oliver stated. “People don’t call the police because they’re having a great time. They’re calling us because they’re in a crisis.”
Waxahachie Police Chief Wade Goolsby was recently approved by the city council to pursue a $26,000 grant application with the North Central Texas Council of Governments for financial assistance on implementing the training program throughout the department. If the grant is approved, all of the department’s officers would go through the same training as Oliver and get the same qualifications to deal with similar mental health crisis emergencies.
Oliver explained that conditions covered in the course included bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and depression, among several others. While he isn’t able to diagnose those conditions in the field, Oliver said he had gained insight into the different symptoms of those conditions from the education he received in the course.
Armed with that knowledge, Oliver said he’s able to compartmentalize different emergencies and rationalize how to respond to them.
“We’re completely changing the way we approach people in crisis,” he said. “Before we looked at individuals in crisis as someone who is dangerous. Now we’re teaching officers that they’re a person in need of help.”
Oliver explained that when he took the course, the commission partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to give the applicants some first-hand experience on what it’s like to deal with a mental health crisis – including bringing in those who have gone through those emergencies themselves.
“We’ve actually had families volunteer to come up with individuals who suffered from mental illness,” Oliver recalled. “These families actually came in and recreated some of the crisis situations they had to experience themselves where they had to interact with police officers.”
Oliver said before he took this training, they handled mental health crises very differently – sometimes deferring to more aggressive methods rather than more interpersonal ones.
“Back when I started, the idea was we’ll get them to the jail, and we can stabilize them from there,” he recalled. “We needed to secure them with handcuffs and transport them as soon as possible. What we’ve realized since then is that’s doing a disservice to these folks that are suffering from medical conditions. We’ve really gotten away from that and found more productive ways to get these people help.”
Goolsby stated that mental health-certified officers, such as Oliver, are dispatched out into the field whenever there’s a need for their expertise. Oliver recalled several examples where his training has been useful on a call, including with individuals who were contemplating suicide.
“We want to make a connection where instead of forcing someone to comply with us, we get voluntary compliance,” Oliver expressed. “We want to build a relationship with this person and create a team with them and walk through this together.”
However, not all mental health crises are without their threats. Oliver stated that on a call, there are always risks involved.
And sometimes, the individual they’re communicating with might be a threat more than a victim.
“There may be times where someone committed a crime during a crisis, and we have to take them into custody,” Oliver explained. “There may be other times where the safety of officers and citizens are in jeopardy, and our officers will have to use force. But with this training, we’re pushing the idea that force should only be used as a last resort. We want to try to use the communications our officers use every day to help stabilize these situations before we get to that point.”
“We have seen these officers de-escalate situations with the training that they received and recognized that the person might have an underlying issue behind perceived aggressive actions,” Goolsby expressed. “We try to end situations peacefully, and this training helps us accomplish that.”
Oliver said he entered the police force 10 years ago to help people. Going through the mental health training program has enabled him to do just that.
“It’s really taken away from this mindset that they’re a suspect or a criminal, and really focusing on the fact that they’re someone that’s in need of help - and we’re there to help them,” Oliver stated.