Utah lawmakers examine police encounters with mentally ill

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers are considering whether police in the state should receive more training on how to deescalate encounters with people undergoing mental health crises.

They held their second study session Friday as they review law enforcement practices in the state following a spate of officer-involved deaths across the U.S.

No legislation is on the table yet.

The state spends about $150,000 a year to give a 40-hour training course to certain officers about how to best navigate encounters with people in crisis, said Doug Thomas, director of the state substance abuse and mental health division.

That money provides first-time crisis intervention training to about 900 officers a year, and recertification training to about 500 officers who already went through the program, said Krista Dunn, a Salt Lake City Police deputy chief who spoke on behalf of the state training program.

About three-fourths of Utah police agencies have officers who completed the training, Dunn said. Most of the ones without are small, rural departments.

As part of the training, officers are taught to assess their own emotional state before coming to the scene of an incident.

"If officers come in survival mode or highly keyed up, sometimes they can escalate things," Dunn said during the hearing.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, questioned why not all law enforcement officers receive crisis intervention trainings.

"This seems to be such a good thing that every police officer ought to have that training and that understanding," Dabakis said.

All officers get some basic crisis intervention training at the police academy, Dunn said. But Thomas said the state doesn't have the money to give the more intensive training to all officers. In addition, he said research has shown it's more effective to selectively train officers who volunteer for the role rather forcing it on all officers, many of whom don't think they need the training.

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, a Utah libertarian policy group, said that shouldn't prevent the state from making the training mandatory.

Kelly Atkinson, executive director of the state's Fraternal Order of Police, said his organization would welcome any additional training so long as a funding source is identified. He showed video clips of officers successfully resisting use of force and resolving difficult encounters.

Boyack questioned whether police are over-trained on using their weapons and under-trained on deescalating situations. Dunn echoed that sentiment, saying some officers never use their firearms during an entire career, but deal with mentally ill people regularly.

The hearings came after turmoil late last year over shootings and other incidents in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and elsewhere.

In Utah, one such incident was the September death of 22-year-old Darrien Hunt, who was wielding a samurai sword in Saratoga Springs when police shot him. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating. Hunt's family has said he wasn't a threat but was treated differently because he was black. Prosecutors found the officer acted appropriately.

One of the officers involved in that incident was wearing a body camera, but did not turn it on.

Steve Burton, of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, suggested that all officers be required to wear and use body cameras so everyone can see if the "authority and power that we give to law enforcement is being used in the way that we as citizens and you as a legislature want it to be used."

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