New law ensures officers are trained in body and mind

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We all know that law enforcement today faces an ever growing complexity of issues. The challenges they confront are imminent and police officers are expected to protect and serve without error in judgment, delay of action or increased expense. We also know that we as legislators and policy makers have an obligation to continue to ensure that our police officers are offered the best training, timely topics and quality instruction that will allow them to meet their mission and fulfill their vocation.

This year Rhode Island enacted legislation that is a reflection of a need that we as lawmakers have to address to make certain that our front line responders are prepared. Nearly 15 percent of police service calls will deal with some component of mental illness and this percentage is on the rise. When an officer arrives on scene they not only should have the proper equipment, but they should have state-of-the-art science training.

Rhode Island now will guarantee that our police officers will receive nationally certified training with proven success all over the country. This program is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA).

MHFA is a training program certified by the National Council for Behavioral Health that enables individuals to recognize the signs and symptoms of common mental health disorders such as stress, anxiety, depression and substance use. MHFA is the initial help that is given to someone experiencing a mental health problem until appropriate professional treatment and support are provided.

State-of-the-art science training assists in maintaining “community confidence” in our police departments. This new law is a fine tuning of the training we were providing law enforcement. It codifies and guarantees that our men and women responding to the unknown have the best possible preparation for an effective encounter and a safe return home at the end of their shift. Mental illness is the last illness people still talk about in hushed tones. It is our hope that this training also helps to address stigma and will be another step in seeing the criminalization of mental illness stop and to see the criminalization of addiction stop.

There have been too many needless tragedies in the news because police officers did not have the proper training to assess and properly deal with situations involving individuals with mental illness. This new law seeks to prevent similar tragedies from happening. Training law enforcement officers in handling and defusing mental health crisis situations is a benefit for everyone involved: officers, victims, suspects, witnesses and ultimately even taxpayers.

This legislation is the result of many interested parties staying focused and working to make Rhode Island safer. We particularly appreciate all of the technical support, advice and guidance of Gateway Healthcare. We support and have great respect for our state and local police who manage this difficult job on a daily basis. We are proud to add this to the list of items Rhode Island is doing to improve public safety and the officers who protect and serve our state.

 Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi is the Chairman of House Labor Committee serving the 23rd district in Warwick. Sen. Stephen R. Archambault is the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and is a member of Senate Committee on Environment & Agriculture, Senate Committee on Government Oversight and the Senate Committee on Judiciary serving the 22nd district of Smithfield, North Providence and Johnston.

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