Local mental health awareness advocates and law enforcement are lauding the state's effort to improve how municipal police officers are trained to handle incidents involving people with mental illness.

Starting in the fall, new city and town police recruits will undergo 12 hours of instruction, compared to the current four, as part of their overall police academy education, state public safety officials said.

Marilyn Moran, outgoing chairwoman of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Berkshire County, says the increased training is long overdue.

"It's really a breakthrough," Moran said. "Hopefully [the state] will add more hours as it's all about increasing safety for the officers and the people they deal with."

The Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee approved the increase in specialized training hours based on a 2008 report that found the commonwealth spent $187 per officer on mental health training for its nearly 15,000 municipal officers. Kentucky and South Carolina, with roughly the same number of officers, spent $1,186 and $752, respectively.

"It has to be recognized that police officers have had limited options when dealing with a person who is in the midst of a mental health issue, often leading to the arrest of the person because the officer did not have the knowledge and tools to handle the situation differently," said Dan Zivkovich, executive director of the state Municipal Police Training Committee.

"The goal isn't to make an arrest, but to get people the help they need," added former Dalton Police Sgt. Richard Nicholas. "Making an arrest, in many cases, is a last resort."

Nicholas recently retired after a 32-year career with the Dalton Police Department, where he served as a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) specialist, trained to better resolve incidents involving suicide attempts, depression and other mental health issues.

In 2010, Nicholas was among the first of 17 local police officers to become CIT certified in Berkshire County through NAMI. The local chapter has since trained 87 municipal officers, deputies with the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, troopers from the state police barracks in Lee and Cheshire and local college security personnel, according to Moran.

The organization raised $50,000 to fund the 40-hour course that has been administered at various times over the past three years. Moran says about $5,000 in funding remains. The goal is to seek more funding to continue the program.

According to NAMI, 10 to 30 percent of calls police respond to each day involve someone with a mental illness.

"It's definitely a growing problem. That's why it's a good idea to have more training at the recruit level," said Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh.

For the 13-member Dalton Police Department, it's one to two calls daily, said Sgt. Christopher Furlong.

"Early intervention is the key; working with family and friends so people in crisis get the help they need," he said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233