TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - When can a police officer use persuasive words to defuse a dangerous situation, and when does he or she use a gun, or a less lethal weapon like a TASER?
A case earlier this month near Grant and 7th Avenue highlights that challenge. An officer with TPD's Mental Health Team shot and killed a man there. The man's family said he was mentally ill. The officer said the man came at him with a knife.
Officers with the Mental Health Support Team say they are trained to defuse situations without violence, and usually succeed.
What led to a police officer killing Abraham Smith is still under investigation---standard anytime an officer resorts to deadly force.
That's why Sergeant Jason Winsky of the Mental Health Support Team can't talk about that case, but can talk about how TPD trains to steer mentally ill people to help, before things turn deadly.
TPD says it handled about 35 hundred mental health cases this year.
Sergeant Winsky says before officers arrive, 911 dispatchers will have asked if mental illness is an issue, and collected as much detail as they can.
He says, "Those aren't questions we are used to asking, five or ten years ago. We're trying to get that information now so we don't just show up and immediately get into a violent encounter with someone."
The Mental Health Teams first rule is.....slow...things...down.
“Time is on our side. Establish rapport with the subject if possible and don't do anything unnecessary you don't have to do to further agitate the person."
He says officers have spent nine or ten hours talking to someone to end a situation peacefully. Sometimes building rapport means getting close in a way that might raise the risk to an officer.
Sergeant Winsky says if words fail, officers might use a tool like a TASER, baton or pepper spray; and he says even if police are being threatened with deadly force, that may still try something less deadly than a gun.
"If there is a person who is actively threatening officers on the scene and we think we can resolve that using a lesser tool. We absolutely will do that.'>
And Sergeant Winsky says if someone's having mental health issues the goal is to take them to treatment, not to jail.
If anyone feels they need help with a mental health issue for themselves or anyone they know they can call a 24 hour crisis line at 1-866-495-6735.