TUCSON, Ariz (KGUN) — Mental health problems are at the heart of a lot of police calls. Tucson Police have a group of officers specially trained to defuse mental health incidents before they turn deadly.
On January 8th, 2011, a mentally ill man shot and killed six people and wounded 18, including then Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department handled that incident but in the years after, both Pima Sheriff’s and Tucson Police created special teams with enhanced training on dealing with mental illness.
Officer Joshua Godfrey leads the Mental Health Support Team for Tucson Police. He says, “And that had a big influence on the decision to actually create the Mental Health Support Team because prior to that, I know they were talking about it but there wasn't enough, push to really get it through but once that happened, it definitely kind of gave the final push to create a unit like this, not only to try to get people help before. The biggest thing would be to get people help before their mental illness rises to the level that they become a danger to other people.”
Officer Godfrey says all Tucson Police Officers get some mental health training but members of his team have more advanced skills their work is often low profile, gently making sure people with known mental health issues get their court-ordered treatment.
“We have the option of not handcuffing people, and so I would say the vast majority of the transports we do, we don't actually handcuff people. We drive unmarked cars, it is like a normal police car on the inside, unfortunately, So it's uncomfortable, but, if the person's calm, and they can stay calm like we don't handcuff them.”
As in so much of life, COVID has had an impact on mental health calls, mainly through the effect of people isolated at home but also through them missing in-person counseling sessions. Often the team has to seek out homeless people and try to get them in treatment.
Godfrey says, “In a lot of cases, you know, homelessness, substance use and mental illness all seem to coincide. A lot of times repeated by me not necessarily, of course, but a lot of it's just choices they've made in their lifetime to using substances or they're just born with a mental illness and they're not able to sustain themselves like a normal person.”
TPD’s SWAT teams have their own negotiators trained in mental health to try to defuse threats before they escalate to deadly force.
Officer Godfrey says in five years of working mental health assignments he’s never felt like his life was in immediate danger.
“If someone's already running at you with a knife that's not really the time you're going to be able to deescalate them, but if you're talking to someone through a window or open doorway and they're sitting on a couch and there's a knife in front of them, like, yeah, you might just keep your distance and try to talk to them and get them to stay calm, instead of just being like oh the doors open, let's go grab the next you know they're reaching for the knife and now you have a deadly shooting.”
But he says in most cases words, not weapons are the best tools to get someone in crisis out of danger and headed toward the help they need.