TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WBRC) - After receiving double the amount of mental health calls in one year, The Tuscaloosa Police department is now launching a behavioral health unit.
Sergeant Craig Parker oversees the new behavioral health unit. He said every officer at the Tuscaloosa Police Department has had a day of training in mental illness response, but now the department will also have officers specifically for mental health calls.
“Someone in a mental health crisis, that is a very unpredictable situation,” Sgt. Parker said. “If I can provide the training to our officers to help them better address those situations, it’ll be a better outcome for everybody.”
The new unit has five certified mental health officers and nine crisis intervention team officers. Parker said the officers experienced hands on training and get a certification after 40 hours.
“We have an exercise where we put in MP3 player and headphones and we are now hearing voices,” Parker said. He said the officers learn “this is what Schizophrenia is. This is what Bipolar Disorder is. This is PTSD. We also have trained role players, who are members of the mental health community here, that will come in and act out these parts. We have the officers employ the skills that they’ve used or learned over the course.”
He said during training, the officers also get to hear first hand what it is like to live with a mental illness.
“We also have peers from our community come in and speak on their experience living with mental illness,” Parker said. “They talk about their experience with police officers when they have responded to mental illness in the past.”
He said the unit is trained in how to spot signs and how to help.
“They may be acting out now,” Parker said. “They may be acting aggressively or experiencing self-injurious behavior. It’s likely the root cause of it is going to be mental illness.”
Parker said he’s been working on developing a mental health unit since 2021, and it’s coming at a busy time.
“We’ve had a very rapid rise in mental health calls,” Parker said.
The Tuscaloosa Police Department reports an increase in the amount of mental health calls over the last year. In 2019, the department responded to 334 mental health calls and 181 suicide calls. In 2020, the department responded to 659 mental health calls and 202 suicide calls. Parker said the calls for 2021 are on trend to surpass 2020 numbers.
“We were up to 50 calls this month in 2021, which puts us on pace for roughly 913 calls this year,” Parker said.
He said it’s important for police officers to know how to detect mental illness so they can better help the community.
“If I can get you medical attention or therapy or counseling or better medications,” Parker said. “If I can do that and prevent this reoccurrence, I improve the safety of not only you, but for myself, by officers and improve the safety of the community.”
Sgt. Parker said he is hoping to soon launch an app that will provide a list of mental health resources so officers on duty can offer help and advice if they encounter someone struggling.
He said the overall goal of the unit is to expand to 20 more officers being certified.