Legislation would require additional mental health training for law enforcement

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By: Jake Stofan | Capitol News Service
February 9, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) -- Law enforcement officers are often the first responders to events caused by mental illness. Lawmakers want to make sure officers can identify mental disorders so they can properly respond.

1 in 5 inmates in local jails suffer from severe mental illness. For the officers on the front lines, it can be difficult to distinguish between a violent criminal and someone who is mentally ill.

“One of them in particular, who is very close to me, is six-foot three. If you don’t know the signs of mental illness and you see this young man and you think he’s acting out, you may use force that’s not necessary," said Senator Bobby Powell.

A video showing an incident where a caretaker in Miami was shot by police while trying to get his autistic patient out of the street prompted the passage of autism training for law enforcement officers last year. Now, lawmakers want to make sure police are trained to recognize all mental illness.

“The key here is to help law enforcement officers become sensitive," said Barney Bishop of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

Police are already trained to identify mental illness when they go through basic training. New legislation would require them to get a refresher every four years.

“As we evolve we want to make sure that our public safety officers have the best information available," said Sen. Powell.

The legislation requires the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to develop the training, but advocates say the training should be given by mental health professionals.

Advocates say the option is already available-- for free.

“We have many community mental health centers statewide who already provide that training at no cost to law enforcement," said Melanie Brown-Woofter of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

Police undergo 40 hours of training every four years. If approved, the mental health training could be included in the 40 hours, or added to it.

If passed, the training would begin being required in October of this year.

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