Local officers work to get mentally ill into programs, not jail

A relatively new program in Sedgwick County is working to get people dealing with mental health issues — including stress — into treatment programs instead of jail.

The Crisis Intervention Team, which started two years ago in Wichita, seeks to train law enforcement officers and others who deal with the public to recognize people in need of mental health treatment and try to get them the help they need.

Wichita police Officer Dan Oblinger, a founding member of the team, said Sunday that the program seeks to provide 20 percent of front-line officers in the county with the crisis intervention training. Currently, the number of trained officers is at 5 percent, he said.

He spoke about the program Sunday at Newman University during a ceremony marking the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs through Saturday. The ceremony was hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Wichita.

It's important that front-line officers and others — including dispatchers — have the training to recognize people who are dealing with mental health issues, Oblinger said.

"A significant amount of our (law enforcement) business is with people in mental health crisis, whether anybody likes it or not," he said shortly before his presentation.

"Bottom line is I'm going to protect the community, I'm going to be involved in these kinds of calls."

The intervention team is made up of people in the community from a variety of professions, including law enforcement, mental health providers and hospital workers.

The team has provided three training sessions, with more than 130 people receiving the training.

Oblinger said that front-line officers can use the training to develop a better relationship with people who are in crisis. The goal is to steer them to treatment, not jail, if an officer determines they need help.

"We have a significant number of people in the community that fall into mental health crisis," he said, "and then become a danger to themselves and officers."

What would happen, he asked, if officers could intervene and get those folks into treatment?

"All of a sudden, they're living productive lives," Oblinger said. Police are not "going on repeat 911 calls, and it's safer."