Burlington police renew focus on getting help to people with mental health issues

BURLINGTON, N.C. -- Burlington police have had a renewed focus this year on de-escalation training and getting help to those with mental health issues.

“If we recognize that person's in crisis, we back up, we slow down,” said Sergeant Shelly Katkowski, a training officer with the Burlington Police Department. “Diffuse that situation without using force, that's our goal.”

Since January, officers have taken classes like Verbal Judo which focuses on things like body language and talking with the public.

"We really want them to be aware of that and how their tone of voice is when they're talking to somebody," Katkowski said.

Other classes include safety tactics and improving decision-making to help officers spot someone with mental health issues.

“They recognize more quickly what a person in crisis looks like,” she said.

Katkowski says they've always practiced de-escalation, but with police now under the spotlight, the department wanted to renew training.

"What can we do to slow it down to maybe try other methods to get you to comply with us without having to use any force?" she said.

They also have a new full-time, co-responder program where a mental health specialist joins an officer on mental health calls.

“Assessing that individual and what they might be going through at the time,” said Sara Huffman, a clinical social worker.

Community members have also gone out with police to talk with the public about how to de-escalate situations.

“The more training people get, the more prepared they are to handle situations when they arise,” said Barrett Brown, president of the Alamance County branch of the NAACP.

"If they're trying to hurt themselves and they need help and they're in crisis, their life is worth saving, and backing up and slowing down as long as it's safe to do so, we're going to do that," Katkowski said.

Staff such as dispatchers, people who collect evidence, and other personnel within the Burlington Police Department are also receiving de-escalation training.