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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers continued Friday to look into police use of force, focusing on crisis intervention training for dealing with people with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues.
Members of the Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee spent more than two hours hearing testimony about how police can be taught to de-escalate potentially deadly confrontations.
No action was taken by the committee, which is expected to continue discussing law enforcement tactics through the summer. So far this year, police in Utah have shot and killed four people and wounded at least one.
Salt Lake Police Deputy Chief Krista Dunn told the committee that officers may never have to fire their guns, but will almost immediately utilize crisis intervention training.
"We know on their first day on the street, they will deal with people with mental illnesses," Dunn said, describing the training as teaching officers to assess their own emotions and calm themselves.
If officers confronting someone who may be unstable "come in survival mode or highly keyed up," they aren't prepared to demonstrate the empathy needed to avoid escalating the situation, she said.
We know on their first day on the street, they will deal with people with mental illnesses.
–Krista Dunn, deputy chief, SL Police Department
The techniques offered through the program first started 15 years ago work in any situation where someone is "very upset," not just with people diagnosed with mental illnesses, she said.
"When your emotions are ramped up, you react differently," Dunn said of someone experiencing a temporary crisis. "I would venture to say we've all had mental health crises in our lives."
To be most effective, the training should be sought by officers rather than requiring them to take it, Doug Thomas, director of the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, told the committee.
"Why not every officer? That's been a question we've struggled with," Thomas said, calling it a "cultural issue" because if officers don't believe in the skills, they won't be used.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he'd like to see every officer get the training. He said when law enforcement uses the "take command" approach, it can fuel already volatile situations.
Still, Dabakis said he hopes no one interprets the need for better skills as meaning law enforcement should wait longer to act in deadly situations. Their first responsibility, he said, is to return home safely to their families.
Dunn said there are issues with mandating the 40 hours of training, especially for officers in rural areas who may not have a large enough force to cover their shifts. She also said there are about 100 people already on a waiting list for the classes.
Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, said he has concerns about some of the laws being enforced that put officers in difficult situations, such as mandatory evacuations for fires and other incidents.
"We can't hope to minimize heavy-handed law enforcement if we are not willing to minimize heavy-handed laws," Madsen said. He said he ran into opposition from law enforcement when he tried to change the mandatory evacuation law.
Vaughn Howard, legislative chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the committee that training is not a "fix-all." He said some police departments have neither the time nor the money for the training.