Gallatin police officers to be trained to handle mental health emergencies in the field

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GALLATIN, Tenn. (WKRN) — As the pandemic diminishes, mental health issues created by COVID-19 continue to flourish.

Every day, police officers answer calls where citizens seem to be suffering from mental health issues.

To better partner with its citizenry in a post COVID-19 world, the Gallatin Police Department will soon be training every single officer in mental health crisis intervention.

Lieutenant Billy Vahldiek tells News 2 that 60-70 times every month, GPD officers respond to a call where someone is in mental crisis. Vahldiek says in a city the size of Gallatin that is a red flag the department could not ignore.

Lt. Vahldiek says officers will learn new skills to recognize and deal with mental health emergencies that officers routinely encounter.

“Basically, skills on how to communicate with someone in a mental health crisis, and get them to the services they need, instead of incarceration or the court system.”

When he first started decades ago, Lt. Vahldiek, a 27-year veteran says, officers were not equipped to be crisis intervention specialists.

Having taken the class, Lt. Vahldiek has a new perspective.

“It’s just a different way of talking to people. Usually when we respond to a call, it’s a crime in progress. But this is something we recognize now, going through the training, maybe you need to delve a little deeper into this and try to help this person on a personal level instead of just providing a service and going on.”

Thanks to a $600,000 grant from the Department of Justice, all 95 GPD officers are being trained to recognize the different faces of a mental health emergency.

Lt. Vahldiek says it gives GPD more tools in the agency’s proverbial tool belt.

And to maximize efforts to serve the community, the grant will allow GPD the opportunity to bring a licensed mental health professional into the department.

That professional will have an office in the building and be accessible for officers. Just as important, that mental health professional will be trained to go to crime scenes once they are secured and safe. That mental health expert will be able to talk to subjects and advise commanders on scene in real time how to best proceed.

When asked how this mental health training changes departmental philosophy from just a year ago, Lt. Vahldiek says, “Last year if we had someone in mental health crisis, they’d go to the ER to be evaluated. They might have to stay there several days. This is a different avenue where they might not feel like they are being punished, that we are really trying to help them.”

Lt. Vahldiek tells News 2 that within the next 18 to 24 months, all 90 plus Gallatin officers should be trained.

That training is already well underway. On Wednesday, six officers who have completed the basic crisis training will train other officers on how to better respond to people in crisis.

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