PHOENIX — Phoenix police officers must undergo training on dealing with people who have mental health issues under the latest reform being rolled out to improve accountability and trust, the agency's chief said Monday.
Chief Jeri Williams announced hundreds of officers who patrol the streets of the nation's fifth-largest city must attend an eight-hour "mental health first aid" course over the next two years to help them better deal with people who are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems.
"The city is committed to having the best police department possible," Williams told reporters, acknowledging "we have a lot of work ahead."
Phoenix recently began deploying the last of 2,000 body-worn cameras for a force approaching 3,000 members. It also requires officers to keep records of when they point their guns at people and is working with community members to come up with some kind of independent civilian review board.
In a city-commissioned report, the National Police Foundation early this year recommended exploring better ways to deal with the mentally ill after finding Phoenix had 44 officer-involved shootings in 2018, more than any other agency during that time period.
The report said community and police leaders agreed that Phoenix police "are not the best equipped to respond to mental health crisis" and urged the city to work with the community and public health agencies to identify better practices.
The push by Phoenix to adopt reforms began early this year with the release of the foundation's report.
It was sped up in June after a videotape emerged showing officers pointing their guns and cursing at a black family. The videotape sparked national outrage with calls for Phoenix to fire the officers who were investigating a shoplifting complaint. Williams said Monday the incident is still under investigation.
The couple said their 4-year-old daughter took a doll from a store without their knowledge. They have filed a $10 million claim against the city.
The city-commissioned report did not indicate that mental health issues played a role in last year's spike in shootings in Phoenix, but law enforcement agencies are regularly criticized for how mentally ill people are handled.
The Albuquerque Police Department is under a federal consent decree after an investigation found a "culture of aggression," including some 20 fatal shootings over four years and the use of unreasonable force against mentally ill people.
Police Sgt. Gates Townsend, of the Phoenix department's crisis intervention team, said there are two squads trained to deal with the mentally ill working across the city six days a week. He said officers across the department transport about 700 people undergoing a mental health crisis to urgent care psychiatric facilities each month.