UTSA PD strives to better their mental health crisis techniques

Bella Nieto, News Editor

UTSA PD, in collaboration with UTSA Department of Counseling, is organizing a mental health/crisis intervention training for campus police officers. The goal is to enhance the tools campus police officers use when responding to mental health calls. 

Officers will grapple several topics, including crisis intervention, communication, identifying mental illness and recognizing suicidal and homicidal intent. Also included are lessons in discrimination, implicit bias and self-care and wellness for officers. Five volunteers from the counseling department at Downtown campus will be coordinating with UTSA PD to provide training to the department. Most of the teaching will be done over Zoom with demonstrations and role-playing every few weeks. 

Police Captain for UTSA, Thomas Calucci, explained what the next steps in training would mean for officers.

 “When we respond to these crisis situations, this advanced training will allow our officers to mitigate them. Funneling them to the resources they need,” Calucci said. “We understand as the first responders on campus, we are going to be getting the call… and I want our officers to be able to recognize somebody in crisis … and be able to funnel that person … into resources and be able to mitigate that.”

Calucci discussed why he saw the need for the program, mentioning the role the pandemic has played in deteriorating mental health. 

“The rationale for the training is seeing where we are coming from nationally coming out of the pandemic,” Calucci said. “Seeing that suicide ideation is the highest it has ever been, mental  health related calls are the highest they have ever been.”

As co-chair of the Behavior Intervention team on campus, Calucci expanded on some of the mental health statistics on campus. He mentioned over the last couple of years, referrals to the behavior team have increased dramatically. Numbers were once low, in the teens, and had reached 300 in 2020. 

In response to the death of a veteran, who was killed by a sheriff’s deputy while experiencing a mental health episode, Bexar County launched a program to send licensed clinicians with law enforcement calls related to mental health issues. Still, incidents like the one in Bexar County, happen nationwide. In fact, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, individuals with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to die in the hands of law enforcement. Such statistics force police departments to grapple with how to ensure symptoms of mental illness are not automatically perceived as an active threat. 

Calucci went on to explain that it was the intention of the program to prevent similar situations from happening on campus.

 “Obviously at any time somebody can turn violent, especially dealing with someone who is in a psychotic state,” Calucci said. “But being able to use verbal de-escalation, being able to use these crisis intervention techniques to say, ‘hey look, yes I know we are the police department at your door, but you’re not in trouble for anything. We are just here to help you, make you safe, and to make sure you succeed.’ I am fully aware that some incidents nationwide have not turned out well. That’s why I am doing this training, to give officers additional tools to pull a 180 and have it go a different way.”

Officers already have to complete a 40 hour mental illness training class, both in the academy and later on in their careers. Calucci went on to explain the difference between the training officers are already required to take and the new one being offered to UTSA PD, yet stopped short of mentioning how situations in the past could have been handled differently with the new program.

 “This training itself will be the cherry on the icing for the top line of training for mental health,” Calucci said. “It’s not necessarily different, it’s just better.”

According to Calucci, the program will not require additional funding since the professors from the counseling department are volunteers and officers will already be on duty. However, not all officers will be required to participate either for personal reasons or previous engagements. 

The partnership between UTSA PD and the Department of Counseling is meant to convey to students the university’s commitment to promoting well-being for everyone on the UTSA campus. Calucci ended with his final aspiration for the program:

I just want to stress we are doing this to build trust in the community and we are doing this because we know as a police department we can’t achieve our goal without the community,” Calucci concluded.