Woonsocket, R.I., police Sgt. Michael Villiard tried to reason with a man who had threatened someone with a knife. Villiard knew the man was dealing with mental illness, says the Providence Journal. The man was taken to a hospital. “In the past, he would have been arrested,” says Villiard, one of about 135 Rhode Island police officers who have taken classes offered by the Rhode Island Council of Community Mental Health Organizations. Villiard says the training helps officers navigate difficult situations involving people coping with depression, paranoia and other disorders. Some mental health advocates say the training isn't enough. Instruction should not just involve experts working with the police, but also people struggling with mental illnesses and their families as well, they say. And the training that officers receive — from police academies and other groups — should be uniform.
“Some training is better than no training,” says Chaz Gross of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “But it's a small fraction of what we could be doing and what we should be doing.” Some advocates want Rhode Island to adopt a nationally recognized Crisis Intervention Team training program, used by more than 2,600 U.S. communities. Too many people living with mental illness end up in court and prison, where they don't belong, says James McNulty of the Mental Health Consumer Advocates of Rhode Island. “It's insane.” Without the right training, it's hard for the police to identify people who might be mentally ill. Their actions “can be seen as dangerous and hostile,” says John Head of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. Such encounters can turn deadly. Informal reports suggest that at least half the people shot and killed by the police each year have mental health problems, says the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association.