Tuscaloosa Adds Mental Health Team to Police Force
By WVUA 23 News Reporter Lacey Beasley
The Tuscaloosa Police Department is announcing the addition of five certified mental health officers and nine crisis intervention team patrol officers to its roster.
Mental health officers will be called in if authorities believe someone at a scene is experiencing a mental health crisis.
“If we do encounter a person who’s a danger to themselves or someone else due to mental illness and they won’t voluntarily go into the hospital to get treatment, we can involuntarily commit that individual to help them get regulated” said Behavioral Health Unit Supervisor Craig Parker. “It could be something as simple as they haven’t taken their medication that day or that week.”
Officers in training learned about illnesses that can cause mental health crises, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They also underwent an exercise called “hearing voices,” Parker said.
The exercise involved officers using headphones that played a nonstop track of voices repeating negative and commanding phrases. While wearing the headphones, officers tried completing ordinary tasks, such as filling out job applications.
“Nobody completes that exercise with 100% accuracy,” Parker said. “Usually it’s nowhere even close, and it just kind of gives the officers a sense of what somebody suffering from auditory hallucinations or something along those lines actually experiences every day.”
COVID-19 has also made a negative impact on mental health calls in 2020, he said. According to TPD, in 2018 the department answered 174 calls involving someone with a mental health concern. In 2020, that number nearly quadrupled.
Adding the mental health team ensures residents in need can get help and medical attention instead of jail time, Parker said.
“We’re looking to transition from treating this as police like a judicial problem, and treating it for what it is, which is a medical problem,” said Parker. “We’re hoping to get people treatment versus getting them to jail, because being sentenced for being mentally ill serves nobody any good.”