Johnson County Police Academy will significantly increase recruits’ training on mental health, de-escalation

Ken Sissom

Starting in 2020, recruits going through the Johnson County Regional Police Academy will receive 21 hours of training on mental health and deescalation — eight hours more than required under Kansas law.

The change, approved by the Johnson County Chiefs and Sheriffs Association last week, comes as local law enforcement agencies are seeing more and more calls involving people experiencing mental health issues.

Ken Sissom, currently the mayor or Merriam and the city’s police chief from 1992-2005, has been director of the regional police academy since 2013. He said the decision to increase training hours would add to the county’s growing work to address mental health issues.

“Departments here have been seeing an influx of calls of people who are mentally disturbed, but that’s a problem across the nation,” he said. “We’re seeing veterans who have issues. Drugs and alcohol are often a factor with people. We’ve seen more aging folks having issues with dementia and depression.”

At present, recruits receive 13 hours of training around mental health issues: eight hours on crisis intervention, four hours on de-escalation techniques and an hour on civil rights processes. Under the plans approved last week, recruits will receive an additional four hours of de-escalation training and will get two more two-hour sessions on crisis intervention.

The decision comes after a push in recent months from the group JOCO United to have an increased focus on de-escalation. The group has hosted events on approaches to coping with mental health issues in the community, including panel discussions with Topeka police leaders to highlight that department’s focus on crisis intervention training. JOCO United was founded following the death of John Albers, a 17-year-old who was shot by an Overland Park police officer while backing a minivan out of his driveway.

Sissom said that the additional training should help ensure that all officers — whether they end up completing a full crisis intervention training certification program or not — will have a solid understanding of the principles of de-escalation when they leave the academy. Coupled with the mental health co-responder program coordinated through Johnson County Mental Health Center, the additional officer training should strengthen departments’ ability to meet growing challenges.

Sissom said that funding cuts to mental health programs at the state level in recent decades have pushed the issue to the local level. He said Johnson County has done a good job of addressing the challenge thus far.

“Johnson County is one of the foremost, best-equipped and positioned places to handle mental health crises in the country,” he said. “There really are only a couple of other counties in the state at our level.”