A year after a mentally ill man died in Omaha police custody, department beefs up training (copy)

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

The Omaha Police Department is taking commendable steps to improve its ability to work with individuals in mental health crisis situations. The department’s plan to station trained mental health specialists in all five precincts by next year should be a plus, all around.

With those specialists in place, the department should be better able to respond to individuals’ needs. Individuals in crisis should be more certain to receive appropriate care more quickly. Processes should become more efficient, and the chances for mishandled situations should be reduced.

The department has put greater focus on mental health issues since the 2017 death of Zachary BearHeels, an Oklahoma man in mental health crisis, and the disciplining of officers who interacted with him.

Situations involving individuals in mental health crisis pose some of the biggest challenges for police officers. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has pointed to the Omaha area’s inadequate behavioral health treatment capacity. As a result, a large number of individuals with mental health issues wind up in county jails. An average of 34% of inmates at the Douglas County Jail have acute-level mental illness, one study found. The figure for Sarpy County Jail: an average of 28%.

“At some point in time,” Schmaderer has said, “law enforcement officers across this country cannot bear the sole responsibility for mental health in this society.”

Sarpy County is attempting to provide some relief by building a mental health crisis center providing inpatient beds. Another help: Nebraska’s participation in a 23-state project, funded by federal grants, to create a centralized registry that shows the current status of local hospitals and facilities with inpatient psychiatric beds.

Omaha police, meanwhile, have made progress in boosting the number of officers who have participated in weeklong Crisis Intervention Team training. Specialists recommend that 20% to 25% of a department’s officers receive such training. The figure for OPD last year was nearly 30%.

That training, plus the placement of mental health therapists at Omaha police precincts, should go a long way in improving services for those in mental health crisis and in relieving some of the burden on law enforcement.

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