Police officers say mental health calls are some of the most complicated encounters they face. 

New recruits are undertaking training methods to assist in such cases. FOX 10’s Steve Nielsen got an inside look at the creative training regimen.

What prompted the change in training?

Phoenix Police sargent Francisco Valenzuela was put in charge of interpersonal communication training a few years ago and a light bulb went off. Using Nicholas, his son with autism, as a real-life training mechanism, so officers can practice training skills that mimic actual situations.

“This is probably the most realistic scenario you’re going to have here at the academy,” Valenzuela said.

Recruit Kasey Basile said she was not told what to expect, and the experience was eye-opening.

“You could tell immediately that he was autistic,” she said. “I have an older sister with Down’s syndrome, so I can process it pretty quick.” 

Is the training helping?

“A lot of those calls sound like someone using drugs at the park or acting erratic so you never really think it’s someone autistic as you go to that call, but it’s something that you should keep in mind about disabilities or mental illnesses,” Basile elaborated.

The Phoenix Police Department is under a Department of Justice investigation and the DOJ is looking into how officers handle mental health and behavioral health calls.

“Recruits kind of panic, what should I do?” Valenzuela said. “Well it shouldn’t change the course of how they investigate.”

“There are different avenues to get to the solution. Their job is to try to be critical thinkers and try to reunite Nicholas back with his parent.”

For Basile, there is an actual benefit.

“It’s something you never forget, so now you experience it and when you go to that you know exactly what to do.,” she said.

How long has this type of training taken place?

Valenzuela implemented the training techniques four years ago, which means that hundreds of current Phoenix police officers have gone through this training with Nicholas.

After each scenario, Valenzuela evaluates what the trainees did right and wrong.

“There’s no better way to fully expose. These recruits are growing through actual, real-life scenarios,” he said.

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