Sheriff's mental health support unit continues to expand

Published: Jan. 9, 2015 at 3:04 AM MST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 at 4:23 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Jan. 8, 2011 mass shooting put the Pima County Sheriff's Department in the spotlight.

Deputies who responded to the scene used special military first aid kits, that have been attributed to saving the lives of several of the gun shot victims.

"We were there in 14 seconds, that's pretty good," said Chief Deputy Chris Nanos.

While response was quick, in the aftermath, even four years later the wounds are still fresh for the hardened deputies and detectives who saw the bloody scene first hand.

"The biggest thing we took from that is that there's a gap. A need for mental health first aid training for our officers and deputies," said Nanos.

Under Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's guidance, the department was able to establish the first Mental Health Investigative Support Unit in the nation.

The unit was launched in 2012 with several deputies and detectives, getting specialized training in how to handle calls involving the mentally ill.

"On a daily basis they encounter somebody in crisis," said Pima County Sgt. Terry Staten.

Whether it's someone threatening to commit suicide or someone who's hearing voices or seeing things, Staten said these are now routine calls for cops.

In mental health training law enforcement officials learn how to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness, everything from body language, to the posture they need to stand in, to what to say, and how to handle different situations, it could make a big difference in the outcome of the call.

Staten said law enforcement have more face to face time with the mentally ill than the mental healthcare providers or their doctors, in some cases. They are now able to forward the information to health care providers and share information.

"We can pound our fists on the table till the cows come home about gun legislation and all those issues, but the real issue here is we need to do something preventative," said Nanos.

In the last year, the unit has responded to almost 7,000 calls involving the mentally ill, according to officials at Sheriffs department.

In the past deputies might respond to a call, then leave if there is no crime committed. Now officials said, if it involved a mentally ill person, they would flag the report and the unit could keep a close eye on the person, talk to their neighbors and family members, and basically monitor the situation.

Could such a unit identify a potential mass shooting suspect like Jared Loughner? He had several encounters with law enforcement prior to the January 8th shooting.

"Would we have been able to identify him? I don't know, but we have identified folks in our community that are a threat to our community and we've worked with them and their mental health provider to keep that threat down," said Staten.

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