9 Investigates: Law enforcement trains for situations involving mentally ill

by: Sarah Rosario Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and officers across the Charlotte region said they're dealing with more people who suffer from mental illness.

They said it's changing the way they operate during some of the most dangerous situations.

"There's certainly the potential every day," said CMPD Capt. Ryan Butler. 
 
That potential is for his officers to respond to calls and deal with suspects who suffer from mental illness.
 
He said it happens in standoffs, robberies and domestic disturbances.
 
High-profile crimes like mass shootings bring attention to the issue but CMPD said it's often overlooked.
 
That's why the department is increasing awareness about its crisis-intervention training for officers, where they learn things can get out of hand quickly if they react the wrong way.
 
"The person they may be dealing with is actually dealing with an illness and not necessarily criminal behavior,” said Dr. Wayne Sparks, head of Psychiatric Emergency at Carolinas Medical Center – Randolph.
 
He said every year more than 20,000 patients come through their doors -- many of them referred by law enforcement.
 
"Without police going out and being involved in these situations, then we may not be able to get the people who need treatment," Sparks said.
 
The training involves officers from all local departments, including Mint Hill, Huntersville, Pineville and Matthews, as well as the sheriff’s office and MEDIC.
 
They learn signs and symptoms of mental illness and often respond to family members who have no one else to call.
 
“It's a cry for help and they want assistance,” Butler said. “They're not looking for someone to be punished but they want assistance for their loved one or family member."
 
Sparks said, "If we're able to intervene and get them the help they need, that’s obviously better than waiting until something unfortunate happens.”
 
While this training doesn't address the mental health problem, it teaches officers how to deal with it.
 
"It just gives you that extra tool on your tool belt," said CMPD officer J.J. Flowers.