A trained mental health therapist will be stationed at each Omaha police precinct within the next few years to better aid officers and the public.

What started as a pilot program last year has expanded as officials recognize the benefits of having a therapist respond to mental illness-related calls with officers. The primary goal is to decrease the instances of officers placing people struggling with such issues in emergency protective custody or under arrest.

Officials also hope to get people connected to the services they require and reduce the number of times police need to respond to someone in crisis.

The therapist, also known as a co-responder, will head to incidents that may involve someone who is suffering from a mental illness. Once a scene is deemed safe by officers, the co-responder can talk to the person and later offer help.

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Members of various Nebraska law enforcement agencies participate in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training last year. A growing number of Omaha police are getting the CIT training.

“We know that we have a lot of folks in our community that may be struggling with mental health, and sometimes there’s not enough resources for those folks,” said Omaha Deputy Police Chief Michele Bang. The co-responders, she said, “have the skill set in order to talk to them and get them to settle and be cooperative and get them into services as opposed to corrections or an arrest scenario.”

The department now has one therapist, Franny Gantner, based at the southwest precinct. Lee Dittman will start Wednesday and work out of the northwest precinct and also with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. By the end of 2019, the department hopes to hire a third co-responder and a mental health coordinator. Officials hope to hire two more co-responders in 2020, depending on money secured through grants.

Additionally, about 31% of the 878 sworn officers in the Omaha Police Department have undergone Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. The weeklong training teaches officers across the state what mental illness is like, how to look for signs that someone is in the midst of a mental health crisis and how to react calmly and appropriately. Three CIT training sessions are held per year, and an additional 13 Omaha police officers will attend training this month.

The percentage of CIT-trained officers in the department continues to grow even as the overall number of officers increases. In 2017, 27% of the officers were CIT-trained. Last year, that figure was almost 30%. All recent years have had levels above the expert-recommended 20% to 25% per department.

Having the co-responders at each precinct can help all officers who interact with the public, Bang said. Many of the mental health-related calls to which officers respond are non-emergency calls, such as a “check the well-being” call or a complaint about hoarding or an unkempt yard that could be signs of mental illness. The co-responders can review the response to the calls to determine which tactics worked and provide advice and ongoing training.

“We at least know anecdotally that it’s working,” Bang said. “For the officers, this is beneficial. These are stressful calls.”

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Alia Conley covers breaking news, crime, crime trends, the Omaha Police Department and initial court hearings. Follow her on Twitter @aliavalentine. Phone: 402-444-1068.

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