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The Essential Elements of PMHC Programs

3. Specialized Training

All law enforcement personnel who respond to incidents in which an individual’s mental illness appears to be a factor receive training to prepare for these encounters; those in specialized assignments receive more comprehensive training. Dispatchers, call takers, and other individuals in a support role receive training tailored to their needs.

Training must be provided to improve officers’ responses to people with mental illnesses. Agencies may differ in the amount of training they offer: some will provide comprehensive training to all officers, some will provide this training only to a subset, and some will provide basic training to everyone in combination with more comprehensive training to a subset. At a minimum, a group of officers sufficient to cover all time shifts and geographic districts should receive extensive skills and knowledge training that builds on the more cursory information routinely given on this topic at recruit and in-service trainings.12 The chief law enforcement executive should ensure that training is also provided to supervisory and support personnel, such as midlevel managers, field training officers, call takers, and dispatchers, who advance the specialized program’s operations.

Planning and implementing a training initiative that supports the specialized program should be a collaborative effort between the law enforcement agency and stakeholders represented on the program coordination group. The coordination group should help guide training decisions, which include selecting content and techniques, ensuring the instruction is culturally competent, identifying and preparing trainers, and evaluating effectiveness. The group’s multidisciplinary/multisystem composition helps make certain that the training initiative reflects an appropriate range of perspectives; members can identify mental health practitioners, consumers, and family members to provide some of the training instruction. Likewise, the group helps ensure quality by establishing a process for consistently reviewing and evaluating training and then modifying the curriculum based on the findings. The group can be particularly helpful in identifying resources to defray law enforcement agency costs.

Specialized training should, at a minimum, provide officers with an improved understanding of the following: mental illnesses and their impact on individuals, families, and communities; signs and symptoms of mental illnesses; stabilization and deescalation techniques; disposition options; community resources; and legal issues. Trainers should provide sufficient opportunities for hands-on experiential learning, such as role play and group problem-solving exercises.

Training should address issues specific to the community in which it is being given. Mental health personnel and other stakeholders should be invited to participate in the specialized training to help improve cross-system understanding of agencies’ roles and responsibilities, as well as to convey any requirements for accessing community-based services. Planners should brief any trainers outside law enforcement about effective techniques, language, and sensitivities to the law enforcement culture that will improve their connection with this audience. When possible, additional cross-training should be provided to improve the mental health professionals’ understanding of law enforcement issues, such as ride-alongs and other opportunities to see policies translated into action.


12. For more information on various types of training opportunities for law enforcement personnel, see Council of State Governments, Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project Report (New York, N.Y.: Council of State Governments, 2002), The Consensus Project.