Here’s how VCU Police is changing how it responds to mental health calls

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Commonwealth University police announced that it’s changing up how officers respond to mental health calls.

As of March 2021, all sworn officers with VCU have been trained in either mental health first aid or crisis intervention training. The department said it had been considering this training since 2019; however, calls for police reform in 2020 jump started their process.

Nicole Dailey, the assistant Chief of Police, said one of the key concerns nationwide, and at VCU, was that law enforcement did not have a healthy stance when responding to someone experiencing a crisis. To combat that, VCU pledged to join the “One Mind Campaign” through the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We are doing our due diligence and this change in training increases the resources we have when responding to someone,” Dailey said in a news release to campus. “We are likely to not have to use anything on our belt, and instead we are using our presence and words.” 

According to Lee Olds, a VCU police detective and mental health trainer, there are key differences between first-aid training and crisis intervention training.

In his words, mental health first aid is an early intervention for someone who is struggling with a mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder or substance abuse. 

“If you speak with someone and notice things they say, or their behaviors, you can get them resources,” said Olds in a VCU news release. “You may be able to identify what condition they have and the goal is to get them help before they go into crisis.”

Alternatively, crisis intervention training is meant to address those who are actively experiencing a mental health crisis and who may exhibit extreme behaviors. 

“It is 100% geared to get people in crisis to go with you to the hospital and voluntarily seek treatment, and is very effective when the officer is trying to build rapport,” he said. 

In all, officials say, knowing how to effectively communicate during these situations is paramount.

Starting this month, VCU’s police force is also receiving training on proper intervention techniques. John Venuti, VCU’s associate vice president for public safety and chief of police, said officers are learning how to step in when their peers are escalating a situation unnecessarily, making a mistake, or violating policy, which is required according to state law.

“The program has three pillars, which promote safe interactions and police accountability: reducing mistakes, preventing misconduct and promoting officer health and wellness,” Venuti said in a release to campus. “Officers should feel prepared to step in when peers are not handling an interaction properly. They should also learn how to spot if a fellow officer is having personal or mental health challenges — emotions from which can carry into the workplace.”

Officers are expected to complete this training by the fall of 2021.

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