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Marjorie Cortez: Police should all have mental-health training

Published: Tuesday, June 16 2009 12:01 a.m. MDT

A young man who was a loving father, spouse and gifted scientist was buried in Salt Lake City Monday.

Brian Layton Cardall died of cardiac arrest after he was Tased by police officers on a highway near Hurricane last week. He was 32 years old.

We do not yet know the specifics of what happened last week. Cardall's wife, Anna, called police for assistance after her husband suffered some sort of episode. He had suffered with mental illness for some time.

Hurricane officials have referred all questions to the city attorney. That's not unusual under the circumstances. In the absence of information about the officer involved, his or her training and experience, and the city's policies on the use of Tasers, etc., speculation can run wild. The city of Hurricane should help clarify matters.

It should also make a concerted effort to send officers to the Crisis Intervention Team Academy, a 40-hour program that trains officers in tactics to effectively deal with people who experience mental crises. Officers are trained to identify characteristics of various mental disorders, have a basic understanding of psychotropic drugs and develop an empathetic approach toward people with mental illnesses. The CIT Academy was launched in Utah in 2001.

Would it have made a difference in Cardall's case? Again, we don't have enough information to make a valid judgment. But it makes sense that every officer would benefit from this training, because they are far more likely to encounter more people with mental illnesses or those who are otherwise in crisis than they are going to go on a call that requires them to use deadly force.

The world has changed a great deal since I got my first newspaper reporting job in the mid-1980s. We've gone from a society that warehoused people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities to one that allows people to live in suitable community placements.

In other words, people who used to be institutionalized live among us. They should, I believe. But the price of that liberty is that some people do not do a good job of managing their mental illnesses. If they don't take needed medications or comply with other aspects of their treatment, the consequences can be likened to an insulin-dependent diabetic eating a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts every day. Failing to manage their illnesses places them at risk of harming themselves and others.

Seemingly, all police officers need the tools that the Crisis Intervention Team Academy offers. Why not make this a standard component of the state's Peace Officer Standards and Training curriculum?

Some 64 law enforcement agencies — police departments, sheriffs' departments, federal agencies, university police agencies and transit police — have put officers through the CIT training program.

Making this a statewide requirement may seem a preposterous proposal, given current economic conditions. Many government agencies are struggling to make ends meet as sales, property and income tax collections have dwindled. I get that.

But I also understand that there is a lot of undiagnosed, untreated or poorly managed mental illness in the world. This would be a good long-term investment in ensuring that peace officers have the know-how to guide troubled people through an episode until trained mental-health professionals can intervene.

Marjorie Cortez, who grieves for all touched by Brian Cardall's untimely death, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com

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